Venezuela's silenced voices

Venezuela’s harsh treatment of the opposition is not likely to end. The international community should hold president Maduro’s regime accountable for its human rights abuse.

Cecile Rossi
9 March 2017

Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, waves a Venezuelan flag during rally against President Maduro's government in Caracas, 26 October 2016. Photo: Manaure Quintero/dpa. All rights reserved.

On 12 January 2017, Raúl Isaías Baduel, a leftist military officer once very close to former president Hugo Chávez, was arrested for the second time in 10 years. Baduel was one of Chávez’ most loyal allies before falling out of his favour, when he resigned from his position as Defence Minister in 2007. He was then imprisoned for seven years and 11 months on corruption charges, until August 2015 when he was released on probation. The term of his probation was revoked on 12 January 2017 and he was held incommunicado until 3 March, when the court issued new charges of corruption and conspiracy against him, one day before his seven years and 11 months sentence would come to term.

In January 2016, the Mesa de la Unidad Democratica (MUD), which brings together 11 opposition parties, took control of the Asembla Nacional (AN), after winning parliamentary elections in December 2015. The sharing of power between current president Maduro’s Partido Socalista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), and the opposition resulted in a political deadlock. In February 2016, the MUD initiated a petition to call for a referendum to oust Maduro. The petition was supported by several large protests against the regime. These protests were met with arrests and detention of opposition activists. In September 2016, over 170 people were arrested during a protest in Caracas calling for the referendum to oust Maduro to be held before the end of 2016.

President Maduro, who was elected in April 2013 after former president Chávez’ death, has largely intensified repression and abuses of any kind of opposition to his party, the Partido Socalista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV). Numerous critics of the regime are detained on thin charges and evidences, suffer abuses in custody and have their trials repeatedly postponed, some waiting for up to several years for trial. As of 1 July 2016, there were 1,998 political prisoners who were not convicted and waiting for trial, and 96 who were in prison. Under Maduro, disregard for due process and human rights have become the norm.


Unfair trials? The case of the Baduel family

Raúl Isaías Baduel was the Defence Minister and Commander-in-chief of the Venezuelan army under former president Chávez. He was highly loyal to Chávez, and led a paratrooper operation that prevented the coup against the president from succeeding in 2002. However, in 2007, he resigned from his position and joined the opposition. He explained that he disagreed with Chávez’ call for a referendum which would largely expand executive power. Two years later, Chávez dismissed several high-ranking officials whose loyalty he doubted and arrested Baduel. He was sentenced for seven years and 11 months based on corruption charges while in power.

A few years later, his son was also arrested, and remains detained. On 21 March 2014, Raúl Emilio Baduel was arrested, after protesters claiming that there was “no reason to celebrate” formed a human chain to prevent a traditional spring celebration in Maracay, a city famous for its associations with both its agricultural hinterland and the military. While other protesters arrested on that day were released within three weeks, Raúl Emilio Baduel and his friend, Alexander Tirado, a prominent activist of the famous opposition party Voluntad Popular, were sent to a high security prison four hours away from the city. They spent eight months in Uribana prison, at times in solitary confinement, and suffered torture, as describes Tirado in a letter published by El Nacional. They were then transferred to another prison following mutinies in Uribana prison, which is known for being one of the most violent prison facilities in Venezuela.

Raúl Emilio Baduel was eventually charged with “public incitement” to commit crimes, public intimidation using explosive devices, and associating against the state. The defence accused the Venezuelan prosecutor’s office of presenting inconsistent evidence against the accused, including attributing behaviours and describing circumstances of arrests that did not match witness testimony or defence evidence. Further, the defence argued that the prosecution obstructed its work by tampering evidence and witness testimonies. Raúl Emilio Baduel was eventually sentenced to eight years imprisonment. 

Raúl Emilio Baduel’s defence claims that he was denied due process, and that the judgment was influenced by the fact that his father became a sworn enemy of Chavez. Indeed, at the time of his arrest and still today, many human rights organisations maintain that the case of his father, Raúl Isaías Baduel, is politically motivated. They argue that Chávez punished Baduel for defecting to the opposition. This raises questions on the politicisation and mechanisms of arrests, detention and trials of government critics in Venezuela.

The mechanisms of arrests and detention

The Maduro government has been cracking down on all forms of opposition and from all political lines, including judges who refuge to follow its judicial line, such as or Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, who was prosecuted in 2009 for giving conditional liberty to a government critic who had been awaiting trial in prison for three years, local officials and youths who voice criticisms of the government, as highlights Human Rights Watch. During protests against the regime, the government conducts rounds of arrests, which are at times arbitrary. While some people are released shortly after their arrest, others are arbitrarily and illegally detained for long periods of time, despite the lack of consistent evidence to support charges for detention.

According to the NGO Foro Penal Venezolano that provides legal counselling for political prisoners and lobbies for human rights, there are three categories of political prisoners. Some people are arrested because they pose a political threat to the government, as individuals. The purpose of their arrest is to isolate them from the population. This is the case of Voluntad Popular leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison in October 2015. Others are arrested and detained for exercising a ‘constitutional right against the official ‘line’’, such as Raúl Emilio Baduel, who participated in opposition protests. The purpose here is to intimidate the group to which they belong and discourage them from speaking up. Finally, some do not pose a direct political threat either individually or in group, but they become scapegoats to justify the official propaganda. Manuel Morales was the owner of a big chain of supermarket and was detained for 170 days in 2015. He was blamed for the government’s economic mismanagement that results in food shortages.

The government sporadically releases political prisoners, before arresting even greater number. This is described by a lawyer, who works for Foro Penal Venezolano and asked not to be named, as a revolving-door effect: the government arrests, detains, and releases opposition figures on a rolling basis in order to give the impression that political prisoners are regularly released. However, once a certain number are released, more are arrested and detained. He also claims that political prisoners are used as bargaining chips in negotiations between the government and the opposition. In 2016, according to the NGO Foro Penal Venezolano, 46 political prisoners were released, while another 56 were arrested.

While awaiting trial, and once convicted, political prisoners suffer “overcrowding, lack of food and high levels of violence” in prison, according to the lawyer. Some political prisoners are targets of sexual violence and torture. Inhumane treatment range from being forced to squat or kneel without moving for hours, listening to unbearably loud Chavista music for hours, and burning of sensitive body parts, to brutal beatings, electric shocks, threats of murder or rape. Human Rights Watch also reports on several cases of solitary confinement and other forms of psychological torture. In 2014, two mutinies took place in Uribana prison, as political prisoners protested against conditions of detention that included regular instances of physical violence.

The length of time spent awaiting trial, the treatment of political prisoners in detention, and sentencing is completely dependent on the person’s background. With regards to the wait for trial, the lawyer explains: “Venezuelan legislation states that accused people cannot spend more than two years awaiting sentencing. Yet this is common practice within criminal tribunals in Venezuela”. In addition, sentences are often arbitrary or disproportionate. “For a student who happens to be apprehended in a peaceful demonstration, the sentence can range from inability to leave the national territory to 10-15 years in jail,” says the lawyer. Witness tampering and indefinitely postponed hearings are commonplace, while persons in detention are frequently not told what charges they are being held on.


Free wheeling

 This whole process of arrest and detention repeats itself indefinitely because Venezuela lacks judicial independence. Former president Chávez extended his control of the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ), and appointed his supporters as judges. Following the election of the opposition coalition, the MUD, at the Asembla Nacional (AN), the TSJ has been repeatedly blocking AN decisions and declaring them void, if they differed from, or challenged the regime. As the TSJ fully supports the executive, and legislative power has been close to nullified, Maduro alone decides of the fate of political prisoners, with barely any oversight or accountability in the judicial process.

In the last decades, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has produced binding judgements to counter the politicisation of the courts in Venezuela, and to call for the respect of political prisoners’ rights. On 10 December 2013, Venezuela officially withdrew from the IACHR based on the claim that it violates its sovereignty, and that it “supports terrorism” against the “progressive” governments of Latin America.

On 14 January 2017, following a request to investigate alleged abuses of political prisoners in Venezuela, the IACHR issued a ruling calling for the respect of the rights of political prisoners, notably Raúl Emilio Baduel, and asking for the Government of Venezuela to take measures to ensure their integrity.

However, Venezuela’s harsh treatment of the opposition is not likely to end. In fact, the new Vice President, Tareck El Aissami appointed by Maduro at the beginning of January, who was blacklisted by the US for engaging in narco trafficking, immediately tasked intelligence services to go after opposition politicians. As the US senate approved a resolution calling for the release of Venezuelan political prisoners on 28 February, this begs the question of the role of the international community in holding Venezuela accountable for its human rights abuses. 

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