Venezuela Releases 22 Prisoners After Critical UN Report Published

On Thursday, Venezuela reportedly released 22 prisoners, including high-profile judge Maria Afiuni, journalist Braulio Jatar, and twenty students, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and her office. The news came after the U.N. Human Rights Council held a debate on Bachelet’s report after a visit to Venezuela in June. The report detailed alleged human rights abuses in the country. Afiuni was jailed without a warrant shortly after former president Hugo Chavez criticized one of her rulings releasing businessman Eligio Cedeno, who was accused of corruption. Prosecutors accused Afiuni of taking bribes to free Cedeno. She denied the charges, insisting she released Cedeno because he had been awaiting trial for longer than allowed by law. Jatar, a prominent journalist and lawyer jailed on Venezuela’s Margarita Island, was arrested after publicizing a protest against Maduro and accused of money-laundering.

Bachelet called on the Venezuelan government to release political prisoners, via a webcast before departing Venezuela after a three-day visit: “I call on the authorities to free all those who are detained for peacefully exercising their civil and political rights.” The 16-page UN report highlighted the arbitrary arrest, ill-treatment, and torture of government critics, accusing Venezuelan security forces of sending death squads to murder young men and stage the scenes to make it look like the victims resisted arrest. The report said the killings were part of a strategy by the government of President Nicolas Maduro aimed at “neutralizing, repressing and criminalizing political opponents and people critical of the government”, which had accelerated since 2016.

Venezuela has refuted the report, calling it biased. But within hours, President Maduro ordered the release of the 22 captives. Deputy Foreign Minister William Castillo insisted that the report “does not reflect the reality in our country.” He said Venezuela would heed “constructive” recommendations. “We demand that its contents be corrected, and we urge you to act in a balanced and respectful way,” Castillo told the U.N. backed Human Rights Council through a translator.”The content of this report is incomprehensible, dominated by a selective and biased vision,” Castillo said. “It’s a text lacking in scientific rigor, with serious errors in methodology and which seems like a carbon copy of previous reports.”

However, government figures show the deaths ascribed to criminals resisting arrest in the country numbered 5,287 last year and 1,569 by May 19 this year, as the country remains gripped in a political crisis. Referring to these figures, the report said that researchers from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) believed there are “reasonable grounds to believe that many of these killings constitute extrajudicial executions committed by the security forces.” The detailed report, which was based on “558 interviews with victims and witnesses of human rights violations,” described a lawless system of oppression and estimated the actual number of deaths in the country could be much higher.

The U.N. report has gained worldwide attention and has urged Venezuela to take immediate steps to address “grave violations’ of economic, social, civil, political, and cultural rights” in the country. The report warns that if the situation does not improve, an unprecedented outflow of Venezuelan migrants and refugees will continue to increase. Bachelet said in a statement that she had the government’s commitment to work with the UN to resolve some of the thorniest issues, including the use of torture and access to justice, and to allow full access to detention facilities. “I sincerely hope the authorities will take a close look at all the information included in this report and will follow its recommendations. We should all be able to agree that all Venezuelans deserve a better life,” she said. The UN will leave two officials in Caracas to provide technical assistance and to more closely monitor the country’s human rights situation, Bachelet said. Venezuela’s government also agreed to an evaluation of the national commission on torture prevention and another study of the obstacles to accessing the justice system.