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Press conference opening remarks by the members of Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela

16 September 2020

Marta Valiñas, President of the Mission

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

Over the past months, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, in accordance with the mandate it was given by the UN Human Rights Council in September of last year, investigated and documented extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment – including sexual and gender-based violence, committed in Venezuela since 2014 to the present.

To conduct its investigations, the Mission interviewed victims, witnesses and other key sources of information such as members of security forces and of the judiciary, and reviewed an extensive number of documents and audio-visual material. We deeply regret that the Government has not replied to any of our correspondence, including when we asked permission to visit the country and to meet with State authorities. We have also asked for information about the cases documented in the report, and we have offered to send them the report for their consideration ahead of publication. We received no response.

Our conclusions are clear. On the basis of the information collected, the Mission has reasonable grounds to believe that serious human rights violations and international crimes took place in Venezuela in the context of public protests, of targeted political repression and in the context of security operations.

As documented extensively in our 411-page report, these violations were committed directly by members of State security forces and intelligence agencies.

We have reasonable grounds to believe that high-level authorities within these entities, as well as the political authorities who exercised power and oversight over them -including the President and Ministers of Interior and of Defence, were aware  of these crimes, and either ordered or otherwise contributed to them, namely by adopting plans and policies that led to their commission, by coordinating activities and providing the necessary material and human resources. The determination of their individual criminal responsibility, however, must be made by the competent judicial authorities.

These acts were committed pursuant to two State policies: one to quash opposition to the Government, and another to combat crime, including by eliminating individuals perceived as “criminals”. We also consider that the documented crimes were committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population, and for these reasons, the Mission has reasonable grounds to believe that they amount to crimes against humanity.

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In relation to the policy I just mentioned, to combat crime, the Mission found that arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial executions were committed in the context of security operations – including in joint military and police operations known as “operations for the liberation of the people”, or other operations undertaken by the special action forces of the national police, known as FAES, and by the CICPC, the police body in charge of criminal investigations. Most of the victims were young men who were targeted due to their real or perceived involvement in criminal activities. The Mission notes that, while combatting crime and ensuring security for its citizens is a legitimate function of any State, this must be done with full respect for human rights. The Mission’s investigations revealed, however, that these victims were killed once they were already under the control of the armed security officials, with fatal shots to vital areas, and that these crimes were covered up by state officials, who at times planted weapons near victims’ bodies to claim that they were killed while resisting authority or as a result of confrontations. The Mission also documented one military operation in Barlovento, as a result of which, five men remained disappeared at time of writing. 

Francisco Cox Vial, member of the Mission

As Marta has mentioned, after the Mission’s investigation has concluded we have determined that there are reasonable grounds to believe that one of the policies in furtherance of, or pursuant to which, the multiple crimes and violations where committed was that of quashing political opposition. The agencies that implemented that policy where SEBIN (the civilian intelligence agency) and DGCIM (the military intelligence and counterintelligence agency).

Those targeted as victims of crimes and violations where often government critics with high public profiles or people who achieved prominence or represented a perceived threat due to their actions. They include social activists and political leaders at the forefront of protests, opposition politicians and military dissidents accused of rebellion, plotting coups or other conspiracies. Those associated with them were also targeted, including families, friends and colleagues or human rights defenders.

With regards to SEBIN, those arrested were brought either to the SEBIN´s headquarters in Plaza Venezuela or to the SEBIN El Helicoide building, both in Caracas. Once there, SEBIN officials interrogated the detainees without the presence of a lawyer and/or refused to allow them to contact their lawyers when requested

As for DGCIM, the arrests took place at different points around the country. Arrestees were then brought to Caracas, either directly to DGCIM Boleíta or first passing through one of several unofficial or clandestine “safe houses” for hours or days.

The crimes and/or violations that those agencies committed in a systematic manner where: arbitrary detentions, torture, including sexual and gender-based violence, short term enforced disappearance.

Members of both agencies hid their identities while making the arrests and didn’t provide or show an arrest warrant to those being taken into custody. In some cases, SEBIN did not obey judicial orders to release people they had under custody.

The type of questions asked, by both agencies, to the detainee seemed to seek to obtain a confession or information regarding people seen as contrary to the Government. Torture was used for such purpose but also as a form of punishment for the acts, views and affiliation of those under custody. Among the acts of torture we have reasonable grounds to believe were committed are: sexual and gender based violence including forced nudity, rape and threats of rape, targeted violence against male genitals; asphyxiation with toxic substances and water; stress positions; prolonged solitary confinement in harsh conditions; cuts and mutilations; electric shocks; and threats to families close to those detained. Some of these acts resulted in serious and/or permanent physical injury, as well as psychological trauma..

The Mission documented cases in which SEBIN and DGCIM officials and other authorities either denied having the person in detention or told family members and lawyers trying to locate the detainees that they did not have any information as to their whereabouts.

As for those responsible for the crimes, the Mission has reasonable grounds to believe that the Directors of the intelligence entities involved in the commission of the crimes documented in this report ordered or contributed to the commission of these crimes, and having the effective ability to do so, failed to take preventive and repressive measures. The Mission also received information of cases in which acts of torture were committed in the presence or under the supervision of senior officials. The direct perpetrators of the crimes documented in this report are responsible for their actions as well.

Paul Seils, member of the Mission

Since 2014 there have been thousands of political demonstrations by opponents of the Government. The Government’s approach to dealing with protests was planned. Indeed, many of the plans were made public, including perhaps the best known, Plan Zamora. The control of the demonstrations involved inter-agency cooperation and organisation. It involved in many situations the use of the national armed forces in conjunction with the police, intelligence authorities and political authorities. As well as the development of general plans, the Mission has reasonable grounds to believe that even in specific operational planning, high level officials, including at senior military and Ministerial levels were involved.

The Mission has looked in close detail at almost 100 protests. It has reasonable grounds to believe that many of those detained in the context of the protests were subjected to torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The mission believes that the practice of torture and related treatment did not arise randomly or as the result of rogue elements in the agencies who detained the victims. Rather it believes the treatment they received was part of a policy and of larger attack against a civilian population. As such, the acts in question constitute crimes against humanity.

The acts of torture included, among other things, severe beatings, psychological torture regarding threats of execution, mock execution, threats of execution of family members, sexual assault, rape and threats of rape, and electrocution.

The Mission found that those responsible for the acts of torture included the National Police (PNB), the national Guard and the civilian intelligence agency, SEBIN. The Mission believes that senior authorities, including the President and Ministers, knew of the practices in question and are also responsible for them.

The Mission also found in the cases closely investigated that several civilians had been killed unlawfully by law enforcement agents in the context of controlling the protests. In several cases the agencies in question had acted disproportionately and, in some cases, used so called “less--lethal” weapons, including for example firing a gas cannister at a protester at such close range that it caused fatal injuries. The agencies involved include the GNB, the PNB, local police, other members of the national armed forces, and the SEBIN.
In other cases, state authorities acted in concert with “colectivos” who also killed a number of protesters.

Finally, the Mission found that a number of protesters had been arbitrarily detained, including on some occasions in massive detention exercises. It found that in several cases, evidence had been fabricated to justify arrests. The scale of arbitrary detention is not easy to determine and is an area that requires further investigation. The Mission was often not in possession of sufficient information to determine the lawfulness of the measures imposed by the State to limit protests, or, in many cases, to determine the lawfulness of specific arrests that had taken place. Arrests resulting from disproportionate measures limiting peaceful assembly would be unlawful. It has not been possible to carry out the detailed analysis of the complex measures in place to make findings on the generalised practice of arbitrary detention. Nonetheless, the mission notes it has become extremely difficult for protesters to hold legally authorised demonstrations. 

Marta Valiñas

We call upon the authorities of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to immediately stop these human rights violations, and to take all necessary measures to prevent further acts of this nature from taking place. We welcome the recently announced intention by the Attorney General of holding to account members of the Special Action Forces for killings, and the pardon by President Maduro of political prisoners. We urge authorities to conduct prompt, effective, thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigations into all the violations and crimes documented in our report, and others of a similar nature, and to provide full redress to the victims. Impunity must end. If Venezuela fails to bring perpetrators to account, we urge other States and the International Criminal Court, to consider taking action in accordance with legislation applicable to them.

Thank you.

ENDS

Biographies of the panelists available here: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/FFMV/Pages/Members.aspx

More information on the Mission and its findings available here:
https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/FFMV/Pages/Index.aspx