Behind Closed Doors: Uncovering The Abuse Of Detainees In Venezuela

For months now, footage of police exerting acts of violence towards young protesters amidst the political chaos in Venezuela has been broadcast all over the world. However, less is known about the thousands of alleged anti-government protesters who have been detained by authorities behind closed doors. In April, blindfolded and terrified, a student bound by his wrists was led into a small dark cell and told “You’re going to die here” according to the Washington Post. After being detained for throwing rocks during a protest, he was often beaten and confined with teargas, causing him to press his face into the concrete floor just to escape the fumes according to the Washington Post. Throughout his detainment, he was interrogated about his alleged connection to opposition political parties. He was eventually charged with public disorder and spent 29 days handcuffed to another detainee before being released according to the Washington Post. In a similar story, a man who had once published critical information for the government was detained by intelligence agents for more than 50 days where he was not allowed to see a judge, his family or an attorney according to Human Rights Watch. He was stripped of his clothes, shackled by his wrists and ankles, suspended from the ceiling and drenched in water. Security forces proceeded to give him electric shocks in order to make him admit to having links to the political opposition. Although much of what happens within the darkness of the nation has yet to be uncovered, the bravery of these victims in sharing their stories is already a big step towards exposing Maduro’s regime for what it truly is.

Although protestors have demonstrated acts of violence towards security forces such as throwing rocks, the response from the government has undoubtedly been disproportionate and excessive. Tamara Taraciuk, a Human Rights Watch researcher, said that “the scope and severity of the abuses in 2017 have reached unprecedented levels in Venezuelan recent history. The combination of widespread brutality, systematic abuses including torture, and the guaranteed impunity with which they are being committed suggests government responsibility at the highest levels.” While Venezuelan security forces have been accused of excessive force in the past, the more recent allegations are particularly alarming for human rights groups. Those who have publicly criticized the government such as demonstrators are being picked up on the streets, arbitrarily arrested, beaten and held in overcrowded detention centres. According to Alfredo Romero, director of the Penal Forum, authorities have detained over 5,400 people since April of this year, many of which were released without even being brought before a judge. Others were subject to arbitrary prosecutions, with at least 760 people charged in the courts for crimes, such as treason and rebellion, in circumstances that violate international law according to Human Rights Watch. Out of fear of detainment and with hopes of finding safety, tens of thousands are fleeing to neighbouring countries such as Columbia, Argentina and Brazil.

Considering the government releases little to no information about those who were arrested, the evidence to support the notion that there is an ongoing systematic abuse of anti-government protesters is very limited. Fortunately, Human Rights Watch and Foro Penal of Venezuela recently released a report that details the stories hundreds of victims who were detained for publicly criticizing the government. The report documents 88 cases involving 314 people who have been subject to serious human rights violations in Caracas and various other cities across the country between April and September of 2017. The cases involved security forces beating protesters and torturing them with asphyxiation, electric shocks, and sexual abuse. Those imprisoned were put in small confined cells for long periods of time without access to food or water. Other times they would be forced to eat food deliberately tainted with excrement, cigarette ashes or insects according to Human Rights Watch. The government has gone as far as to pull people from their homes and from the streets even when no demonstrations were taking place. For example, a single mother leaving a pharmacy near a protest was dragged by her hair to a car where she was repeatedly hit and insulted. She ended up spending 16 days in a National Guard Detention Facility in a small room and was eventually charged with illegal association according to Human Rights Watch. As it is apparent, government security forces use excessive force to repress political dissent and instil fear in its citizens.

Not only does the government repress common demonstrators for standing with the opposition, Maduro has managed to imprison some of the most influential opposition leaders in the past decade such as Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma. During the crisis in Bolivarian Venezuela, Lopez was arrested and charged with arson and conspiracy for calling protests in 2014. Although many condemned these charges for being politically motivated, in 2015 he was found guilty and sentenced to 13 years and nine months in prison for public incitement to violence through supposed subliminal messages and being involved with the criminal association. He was eventually transferred to house arrest in July 2017. Similarly, Ledezma was arrested in 2015 after Maduro accused him of plotting to overthrow the government. He was imprisoned and transferred to house arrest for health reasons, where he eventually managed to escape and fled to Colombia. Upon landing, he declared he would continue his fight for the opposition.

It may appear that things are getting better in Venezuela as less is covered on the issue in the news and protests have died down following the election of a pro-government constitutional assembly. However, the repression of anti-government activists and members of the opposition is only getting worse as security forces continue to unleash their brutality on those who speak against the government. The government has continued to deny allegations of torture and has gone as far as to accuse demonstrators of instigating the violence in hopes of removing the president from office. President Maduro, the National Guard, the National Police and the Ministry of the interior have not responded to repeated requests from human rights groups to comment on the recent allegations. According to the Associated Press, in September, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told the United Nations Human Rights Council that “The strategy used against my country from certain centres of power is a clear example of the use of human rights as a political weapon.”

Leaders from the country’s main opposition parties, the Justice First, Popular Will and Democratic Action, have continued to express their frustration with Maduro’s government. On December 10th, 2017, these opposition party leaders actually boycotted the mayoral election because they said the electoral system is biased and it would only contribute to Maduro’s strengthening dictatorship according to BBC. As a result, President Maduro announced that opposition parties that boycotted would be banned from next year’s presidential election. As Maduro continues to abuse his power, governments around the world should condemn his actions and put more pressure to drop charges for politically motivated prosecutions and to release people questionably detained. Human rights organizations should continue to investigate human rights violations and bring international attention to the violence that goes on outside of the street protests. There are many more stories to be heard and the people of Venezuela deserve justice. José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said that “High-level Venezuelan officials bear responsibility for the pervasive, serious abuses being committed on their watch. Key international leaders should send them a clear-cut message: if the Venezuelan government proves unable or unwilling to hold security forces accountable at home for the abuses, the international community will push for accountability abroad.”