Statement by Marta Valiñas, Chairperson of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, at the 46th session of the Human Rights Council
March 10, 2021
Thank you Madame President.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is pleased to provide this oral update on its work, in accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 45/20.
As you recall, in September 2020, the Mission presented its first report to the Council, detailing cases of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, including sexual and gender based violence, committed by Venezuelan state actors since 2014.
Our conclusions were clear: some of these violations were committed on a large-scale and amount to crimes against humanity.
The Fact-Finding Mission continues to establish the facts and circumstances of alleged abuses and human rights violations in Venezuela. Unfortunately, as with other investigative bodies of the Human Rights Council, the liquidity crisis affecting the UN Secretariat has delayed contracting our support team.
As the full team comes on board, we will continue to investigate, verify and document such violations, with a view to presenting solid findings to the Human Rights Council in September of this year and in 2022.
Today, we report on information we have collected since the publication of our report, while emphasizing that this is work in progress. We have recently contacted the government of Venezuela to seek dialogue and to be able to conduct inquiries on the ground, as we have consistently done over the past year, with no response so far. We will continue to seek engagement.
On 6 December, Venezuela held parliamentary elections. These were assessed both nationally and internationally as neither free nor fair. Government-aligned parties won over 90% of seats in the National Assembly, amid high voter abstention and a boycott by opposition parties.
With this concentration of power, the political climate of exclusion of dissenting voices appears to continue, marked by the repression of political opposition that we highlighted in our first report.
Within its first few days of assuming power, the new legislature formed a “Special Commission to Investigate Actions Perpetrated against the Republic by the leadership and members of the National Assembly in the period 2016-2021”, with a mandate to investigate the former members of the opposition-led legislature.
On 25 February, former parliamentarian Gilberto Sojo was arrested by the FAES, in relation to pending terrorism charges linked to his participation in political protests in 2014. He had previously been held in pre-trial detention for these charges, but was released in 2016 with substitute measures.
Further, former member of the National Assembly, Juan Requesens, while granted house arrest last September, continues to face a criminal trial accused of serious crimes, including attempted assassination of the President. We are concerned that Mr. Requesens’ trial is unjustifiably being held behind closed-doors, which is against the principles of transparency and due process.
Repression therefore continues against individuals perceived to be “internal enemies” or opponents of the government. Criminal proceedings are ongoing in over two-thirds of the 110 cases of arbitrary detentions against political and military dissidents that we investigated for our September 2020 report.
For those who are still imprisoned, the delays in judicial proceedings have caused grave, and in some cases, irreparable harm. Salvador Franco, an indigenous Pemón man held arbitrarily in pre-trial detention since December 2019, died in January after failing to receive medical attention for his grave health situation, even after a court had ordered that such treatment be provided.
We remain seriously concerned about individuals detained at military and civilian intelligence sites. Captain Luis de la Sotta and retired colonel Oswaldo Garcia Palomo, for example, remain in fragile health and in dire detention conditions, and allegedly remain subjected to torture or other cruel treatment.
We will continue to investigate allegations of torture and cruel treatment and punishment, including new allegations we have received about acts of sexual and gender-based violence against detainees.
At the same time, we continue to seek information related to efforts on the part of the government to prevent and remedy violations, and to investigate and prosecute those responsible for abuses. Since September, according to civil society organizations, around 70 political prisoners have been released from detention with non-custodial measures.
In October, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment against the two alleged perpetrators in the case of former Navy Captain Rafael Acosta Arevalo, whose 2019 death, we concluded with reasonable grounds to believe, resulted from torture inflicted by military intelligence officials. The new indictment by the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented the more serious crimes of murder and torture. However, the State is still prosecuting only low-ranking officials for this death.
We hope to see additional steps towards justice and accountability. The State said in its public response to our report issued last September that it is investigating over 600 cases of human rights violations committed by State authorities. We have requested the State to provide us with more information about these investigations.
Venezuelan women and men continue to protest against the political situation, as well as the collapse of basic services and the fuel crisis, with demands related to labour, health and food. Civil society organizations recorded over 100 cases of detentions in protests since September; we will be following up on these cases.
Since the release of our September 2020 report, the Fact-Finding Mission has identified 36 new cases (8 women and 28 men) of alleged arbitrary detentions. Some of these appear to have been politically motivated. Some of these individuals have been charged under the Law against Hate, accused of hate crimes for criticising the government and individuals associated with it.
Nine of these detentions involved journalists and independent press, who have also been harassed or their work shutdown, their offices raided and their equipment seized. Silencing those who report on political and social realities impedes the transparency necessary for ensuring accountability.
We are investigating the case of Roland Carreño, detained in October 2020 and accused of conspiracy, financing terrorism, criminal association and illegal trafficking in arms of war. There is still no date set for his preliminary hearing, despite the lapse in the timeframe established by law.
We also note the gravity of the arbitrary detention of the Colombian/Ecuadoran medical student, Dr Leonard Hinojosa, who was detained in Zulia in October 2020 as he returned from Colombia to finish his residency. Since then, he has been held for over four months in La Boleíta military intelligence facility without knowing the charges against him.
The State’s concept of the “internal enemy” appears to be increasingly broad. The Fact-Finding Mission is concerned about what appears to be a growing trend: the targeting of individuals and non-governmental organizations engaged in humanitarian and human rights work.
The government has tightened requirements for the registration, funding and operation of NGOs. Authorities have detained NGO workers for crimes under the Law on Organized Crime and Financing of Terrorism, related to the NGOs’ receipt of foreign funds and distribution of pre-paid cash cards.
For example, in November, an arrest warrant was issued for Roberto Patiño, coordinator of the Alimenta la Solidaridad organization, which distributes meals to people in need.
In addition, in January, military and state intelligence officials arbitrarily detained six men from the public health NGO Azul Positivo. Although the Fact-Finding Mission recognizes their release on 10 February, we remain concerned about their treatment in detention and the charges against them.
Public officials have fuelled harassment of NGOs by using rhetoric criticizing cooperation with international bodies and organizations, or the receipt of any foreign funds.
We also highlight our concern that since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 20 people, including healthcare workers, have been detained for sharing information about or criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic. We will be investigating whether these constitute arbitrary detentions.
In September last year, we highlighted the grave pattern of extrajudicial executions committed by the Venezuelan security forces in the context of security operations.
We have identified over 200 killings committed by police forces since the start of the year and will investigate the circumstances around these cases. We will also investigate the involvement of other police forces besides the FAES in these killings.
Between 7 and 9 January, the FAES carried out what might be one of the deadliest police operations to date, in the Caracas neighbourhood of La Vega. According to police sources, 650 officers were deployed in the operation. Our preliminary investigations indicate that at least some of those killed were victims of extrajudicial executions.
Further, we have received reports that public officials continue to engage in practices which serve as an impediment to accountability for unlawful killings and can revictimize relatives seeking justice for their loved ones. These include failing to release death certificates, charging for autopsies and delivering bodies with the casket closed, with the instruction that it not be opened.
The Council has requested that we carry our work with a view towards combatting impunity and ensuring full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims.
In our first report, we identified alleged perpetrators from State intelligence, security and military units. In accordance with our mandate, we will deepen our investigations into these structures, clarifying responsibilities and chains of command, using the standard of reasonable grounds to believe. We will also be attentive to both actions and omissions on the part of the government.
The Fact-Finding Mission will also look at tactics used by State perpetrators to hide or shield themselves from accountability, including coordination with non-State actors to commit violations and crimes, such as with colectivos and other armed civilian and guerrilla groups.
In addition, we will further our investigations into public prosecutors’ and the judiciary’s responses to violations and crimes. This includes whether, through acts of commission or omission, the judicial branch has contributed to perpetuating impunity.
We hope that Venezuela will resolve its human rights crisis. Establishing the facts and acknowledging that wrongs have been committed is the first crucial step.
A few days ago, President Maduro addressed this Council and set out a vision for Venezuela with human rights as a central pillar. As he did this, he and his government continued to misrepresent the seriousness of the situation and to negate any wrongdoing.
Human rights should indeed be at the heart of the Venezuelan recovery, but refusing to engage with the reality and dismissing all critical findings does nothing to help protect the fundamental rights of those at risk and those who have suffered. The victims have the right to the truth and justice, and so do the people of Venezuela as a whole.
I would like to finish by saying that we are conscious of the sensitive context in which we operate. As such, we will continue to attach great importance to the methodology of our work. We still hope that the authorities of Venezuela will cooperate with us.
Notwithstanding, we will continue to work independently, impartially, objectively and rigorously as we build a body of credible information to present to the Human Rights Council in September of this year and in 2022.
Thank you for your attention.