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Remarks by members of the Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela at a press conference to launch its second report

Statement by Marta Valiñas (Portugal), Chairperson of the Mission

16 September 2021

Thank you Rolando, and a warm welcome to all the journalists who are attending this press conference and everyone who is watching us online.

From October 2020 to August 2021 – the first year of its second Mandate – the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has focused on investigating and analyzing more in-depth the responses of the Venezuelan justice system to the violations of human rights and crimes committed in Venezuela since 2014.

Our analysis has focused more specifically on the responses of the justice system to the violations and crimes committed against men and women who are opponents or critics of the Government – or perceived by the Government as such. These include, increasingly, individuals and/or organizations that document, denounce or attempt to address human rights or social and economic problems in the country, or individuals that interfere or are perceived to interfere with interests of government actors, whether political, economic or criminal.

Some of these violations were documented during the Mission’s first mandate and included in its first report, while others were documented over this past year. These violations include arbitrary detention, torture including sexual violence, short term enforced disappearance and arbitrary deprivation of life.

The Mission conducted a detailed analysis of 183 cases where perceived or real opponents were detained. The Mission also held 177 interviews, including with victims or their family members, legal representatives, as well as with former judges and prosecutors who have worked in the Venezuelan justice system during the period of the Mission’s mandate. In addition, the Mission gathered information from verified justice sector actors through 86 responses to a public questionnaire, and it conducted an extensive document review of thousands of pages of legal case files and other official documents.

While the Mission regrets that Venezuelan authorities refuse to respond to the Mission’s numerous requests for information or to grant it access for in-country investigations, the Mission is fortunate to have access to information from within Venezuela – including from the various sources mentioned, many of which are present in Venezuela and/or worked in the Venezuelan justice system, as well as to the files of cases which originate from the Venezuelan justice system.

Based on the investigations and analysis conducted, the Mission has reasonable grounds to believe that instead of providing protection to victims of human rights violations and crimes, the Venezuelan justice system has played a significant role in the State’s repression of Government opponents.

It has done so in three main ways, which we will elaborate further: firstly, through the erosion of its independence; secondly, by not advancing, adequately or sufficiently, the prosecution and sanctioning of those responsible for violations committed by other State actors – namely the security and intelligence actors and high-level public officials identified in the Mission’s first report; and thirdly, by committing or not acting upon procedural irregularities, or other human rights violations, which marred the cases analyzed.

Our investigations reveal a justice system fraught with undue pressures, both from external political actors, and from within the judicial and prosecutorial hierarchies, which compromise the independence of judges and prosecutors. For example, in 102 of the 183 cases examined, the Mission recorded that high-level public officials made public statements commenting on criminal cases involving real or perceived opponents, either prior to or soon after their detention.

In addition, most judges and prosecutors in the past years have been appointed provisionally and outside of the procedures established in the constitution, rendering them vulnerable to undue interference in the way they carry out their functions and the decisions they make, and subject to disciplinary and dismissal procedures which are not in line with constitutional guarantees. Moreover, according to sources from within these justice sector institutions, the appointment of judges and prosecutors over the past years has been increasingly influenced by political and personal considerations.

Former judges and prosecutors interviewed reported that they and their family members had been subjected to threats and intimidation. Nearly half of the former judges and prosecutors interviewed by the Mission left Venezuela due to safety concerns.

Our investigations equally reveal that the State is not taking tangible, concrete and progressive steps to remedy violations, combat impunity and provide redress to the victims through investigations and prosecutions.

The State reported that, in the period between 2014 and May 2021, in total, between 379 and 397 State officials were convicted for human rights violations. The limited availability of public information regarding prosecutions in such cases creates significant challenges in assessing the Government’s efforts to investigate and prosecute human rights violations.

Nonetheless, in relation to the 19 cases included in the Mission’s 2020 report involving targeted repression against real or perceived opponents of the Government, the Mission reviewed the status of domestic investigations and proceedings and, in all but three of those cases, there was no information indicating any progress. In fact, three of the five cases presented this May by the Chief Prosecutor of Venezuela as “emblematic” cases in which there had been positive developments in the proceedings, were cases also investigated by the Mission – the cases of Fernando Alberto Albán, Rafael Acosta Arévalo and Juan Pablo Pernalete – and the Mission considers that the scope of investigations is either limited to less serious crimes or only the lowest-level perpetrators face criminal prosecution, or both.

Several of those considered to be opponents of the Government are detained and then held by intelligence agencies – DGCIM and SEBIN, at times for prolonged periods without charges, and sometimes in spite of judicial orders for their release. On 12 May 2021, President Maduro adopted a decree ordering the transfer within 30 days of detainees in DGCIM and SEBIN custody to detention centres run by the Ministry of Penitentiary Services. However, according to the information available to the Mission, 19 political prisoners remain in DGCIM facilities and no transfers were made of detainees held by SEBIN after that date.

These and other individuals, perceived as opponents to the Government, are subjected to various and compounded violations, including arbitrary detention and torture, and due process irregularities, which we will now turn to.
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Statement by Francisco Cox Vial (Chile), Member of the Mission:

The Mission has reasonable grounds to believe that frequent procedural irregularities are committed by the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’s justice system against real or perceived opponents.

The Mission’s investigation of cases revealed that illegal detentions are a frequent occurrence, abusing the flagrante delicto exception that allows an arrest without a judicial warrant.

The Mission also documented that, when arrest warrants were issued,  discrepancies abounded in the cases reviewed.  Prosecutorial and judicial actors either played a direct role in these discrepancies, such as by backdating arrest warrants, or an indirect role, by routinely including the inaccurate or deceptive arrest records in the legal case file.

The Mission is concerned about the excessive use of pre-trial detention against real or perceived opponents. Of the 170 cases reviewed that involved initial appearances, in 146 of them pre-trial detention was ordered by judges. Of those, 80 (47 per cent) lasted more than two years, the limit permitted under Venezuelan law. This excessive use of pre-trial detention is aggravated by the fact that detainees suffer constant delays in the proceedings, with judges taking no action nor ordering their release. Even when judges do order the release of defendants, they still submit them to other restrictions of their human rights such as the rights to freedom of speech, movement and assembly.

The Mission has reasonable grounds to believe that judges do not fulfil their legal duty to take legal action when presented with credible information of illegalities in the arrest proceedings. Examples documented in the cases reviewed include police and security forces not identifying themselves, not showing an arrest warrant, nor reading the person their rights.

Of special concern to the Mission is that we continued to document serious allegations of torture, sexual violence and/or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment perpetrated during arrests and detentions. Given the focus of the report, the Mission paid particular attention to instances in which these allegations were raised with judicial authorities without an effective response. In 113 of the 183 cases of detentions reviewed by the Mission, detainees or their representatives have made allegations of torture, sexual violence and/or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment perpetrated. In 67 of these, the detainees appeared in court with clear marks of mistreatment or raised allegations of torture, sexual violence and/or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment during court proceedings. Such allegations have also been raised by family members and legal representatives in written submissions to the Control Courts, the Public Prosecutor’s Office or the Ombudsperson’s Office. In some cases investigated, there is no indication of any action having been taken. The Mission is also concerned that many of the detainees were handed back into the custody of the agencies who allegedly had tortured them.

Therefore, the Mission calls upon judges to cease ordering pre-trial detention in SEBIN Helicoide and Plaza Venezuela and DGCIM Boleíta and Fuerte Tiuna and ensure proper application of orders regarding the place of detention by law enforcement and intelligence bodies.

The Mission also has reasonable grounds to believe that prosecutors and judges played a key role in arbitrary arrests by sustaining arrest warrants, pre-trial detention orders and serious criminal charges based on facts and evidence that did not refer to criminal acts or individualize the defendant’s participation in the crimes alleged. In some cases, prosecutors and judges sustained detentions or charges based on evidence that was manipulated or fabricated, or obtained under torture. This situation is seriously aggravated by the constant obstacles that judicial and prosecutorial actors put forward against defence lawyers to do their job. The Mission reminds that the right to a legal defence is the cornerstone of due process.

Some procedural irregularities previously mentioned amount to serious violations of the due process of law, while others infringe on the personal integrity and liberty of defendants, among other human rights. The victims and their families have suffered devastating consequences to their lives, including to their physical and mental health, as a result of the cumulative effect of the multiple irregularities we documented. However, the effects extend beyond those directly affected and impact society as a whole, as rule of law cannot be upheld in a country where trust in the justice system is lacking.

Although the Mission continues to investigate other human rights violations falling within its mandate, significant delays in recruiting staff members impeded its capacity to carry out in-depth investigations into violations outside the current area of focus to present to the Human Rights Council at its forty-eighth session. For most of the one-year period between the forty-fifth and forty-eighth sessions, the Mission operated with less than one third of its intended capacity.

The focus of the present report on the responses of Venezuela’s justice system to violations committed against government opponents in no way minimizes cases involving extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, including sexual and gender-based violence, committed against other individuals in Venezuela. The Mission continues to investigate rigorously these other violations and analyse criminal structures and chains of command of individual and institutional actors in Venezuela, and it will provide further analysis and conclusions at Human Rights Council sessions in March and September 2022.

The report and more information about the Mission is available here.

A video of the press conference is available here

Biographies of the Mission’s members are available here.