The Government of Venezuela must stop systematically detaining protesters and end the growing use of military tribunals to try civilians, a group of United Nations human rights experts* has said.
The authorities must also respect the rights of all demonstrators and detainees, and guarantee their physical and psychological wellbeing, the independent experts said.
“We are very concerned about allegations of arbitrary detention, and excessive and indiscriminate use of force in the context of public protests, as well as the use of military tribunals to prosecute civilians,” they stressed.
“Such acts would openly violate people’s rights not to be arbitrarily deprived of their liberty, to receive due process and to be tried by a fair and impartial judge. In addition, they would constitute serious violations of people’s rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of expression.”
Since April 2017, thousands of people have been deprived of their liberty after taking part in protests. Many of them have been temporarily isolated, unable to communicate with relatives or lawyers before being presented before a judge. In other cases, people were released after discretionary decisions by the security forces.
“The Venezuelan Government has an obligation to ensure that citizens are not arbitrarily deprived of their liberty, or penalized in any way, for expressing themselves and protesting in a peaceful manner. Protests must not be criminalized,” said the experts.
“The Government should also ensure that detention records are made public and are available to family members.”
The experts also called for the immediate release of opposition leaders Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, recently moved from house arrest to detention centres, highlighting that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has held both Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ledezma’s detentions to be a violation of their rights.
The experts said the increasing use of military tribunals to try civilians was of particular concern. At least 400 protesters have been tried in this way, the vast majority of whom were deprived of their liberty after being found guilty of crimes in the military justice code, such as rebellion, treason and assault.
“The use of military criminal justice should be strictly limited to cases where active military personnel commit military offences,” the experts underscored.
“Military judicial bodies should, as a matter of principle, not be deemed competent to try civilians. Venezuela must ensure that civilians accused of criminal offences are tried by civilian courts.” [Emphasis added.]
They also expressed serious concern about allegations of excessive and indiscriminate use of force against demonstrators by state agents, and by so-called armed ‘collectives’ which have been accused of intimidation, assault, detentions and even causing protesters’ deaths.
The human rights experts noted that many detainees had told court hearings that they had suffered torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
“We remind the Venezuelan Government of the absolute ban on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. These rules should govern the conduct of police and military forces at all times,” the experts said.
The UN experts have communicated their concerns to the Venezuelan authorities and requested clarifications on their compliance with international law.
* The experts: Mr. José Antonio Guevara Bermúdez, Chair--Rappourteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Mr. David Kaye, Special Rappourteur on the promotion and protection of the right freedom of opinion and expression; Ms. Annalisa Ciampi, Special Rappourteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Mr. Diego García-Sayán, Special Rappourteur on the independence of judges and lawyers; Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rappourteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
The Working Groups and Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms. Special Procedures mandate-holders are independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organization. They serve in their individual capacity and do not receive a salary for their work.