Venezuelan democracy under scrutiny

A riot policeman shoots tear gas during clashes with anti-government students holding a protest, in Caracas on 15 February.

Violence has escalated in South America again. This time it is Venezuela. The intense protests that boiled over in Caracas and more than ten other cities in the country have resulted in three deaths, 150 detainees, 40 people injured by firearms and the detention of an opposition leader. 

Tight censorship in the mainstream media and Twitter is also reported in the country. 

The new waves of violence began on 12 February, when the student organisation and the opposition leaders invited Venezuelans to participate in countrywide demonstrations on the National Youth Day. 

The march was organised in Caracas and aimed to reach the Attorney General's office where students sought to submit a document. This document demanded the release of two other imprisoned fellow students caught in the previous day’s protests in Mérida City. 

In addition, the opposition and protesters accused the government of high inflation and a high rate of crime, as well as a shortage of food and medicine. 

Last year, over 24,700 people were killed in Venezuela as a consequence of everyday violence. 

The Chief Federal Prosecutor, Luísa Ortega, rejected the opportunity to receive the document when representatives approached her office. Some of the students decided to remain near the official’s office and, after the protest finished, chaos erupted in the area and two casualties were reported minutes later. 

In the aftermath, demonstrations and violence have taken over the streets in more than ten cities and the number of protesters detained increases every day. 

“Leopoldo López [opposition leader] led a violent group to the Attorney General's Office to generate violence,” Elías Jaua, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, declared to CNN. “The police had no weapons, indeed the Bolivarian National Police and public order brigade are totally unarmed.” 

“It cannot be said that Venezuelan Security Forces have been using firearms against demonstrators. There is no proof of that,” he said. 

Different government spokesmen, including the Venezuelan president, accused López of the violence on 12 February. After this, the opposition leader remained hidden, until Sunday. Since then, López spoke to CNN and called for a new march on 18 February. He personally wanted to present the evidence that lead up to the violence caused on 12 February to the Ministry of Justice and Internal Affairs. 

After days of hiding, López emerged on Tuesday in front of thousands of supporters and surrendered to the police after making a speech. 

“If my jailing serves to awaken a people, serves to awaken Venezuela... then it will be well worth the infamous imprisonment imposed upon me directly, with cowardice, by President Nicolás Maduro,” he said. 

Last week during the Youth Day protests, the international news channel NTN24 was taken off the air via cable and via satellite. Maduro declared that this was a State decision: “No news from abroad will be allowed to enter to disturb the psychological climate of Venezuela,” he said. 

At the same time he gave a warning to other international news channels. 

Furthermore, Maduro accused the Agency France Press (AFP) of being responsible for manipulation and encouragement of violence in the country. 

The general director of NTN24, Claudia Gurisatti, stressed on the website of the channel that “clearly this is a censorship of free press, a violation against the citizens’ rights to be informed. This is an attack on press freedom.” 

“It is very suspicious that just as opposition versions of the violence in Caracas were being transmitted, NTN24 in Venezuela was turned off,” Gurisatti adds. 

The Venezuelan Press Worker Union (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Prensa) alleged that the national media is being threatened by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (CONATEL). 

“The media that had reported the protests in various regions of the country may be sanctioned by the Directory of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television,” read a press note from the Ministry of Communication. 

The self-censorship of the media had provoked the resignation of media workers of national channels. 

The SNTP denounced that “11 [press workers] were detained between Wednesday and Sunday morning; five being beaten, five wounded by the National Army, five robbed by official security forces, who also took their personal belongings such as mobile phones.” 

Gabriel Osorio, one of the five wounded reporters, declared to a national press media, El Nacional, “I was taking photos for the photo agency I’m working for and saw six government officials coming towards me. I showed them my press credentials and the National Army shot rubber bullets at me. They took me into a corner, pointed their guns at me and then hit me on the head with the butt of their guns. I was on the floor screaming that I’m from the press, while they kicked me.”  

The general secretary of the SNTP, Marcos Ruíz, pointed out that the different violations to journalistic practice will be reported to national and international agents, such as the International Federation of Journalist and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. 

During the countrywide protests on 12 February official forces detained more than 125 people. On 14 February many of them were released, others are under house arrest and others are still being detained, together with new people captured in recent days. 

Alfredo Romero, director of the NGO Venezuelan Penal Forum, said last Sunday, “in Caracas we registered different types of Human Rights violations, including beatings and the use of electricity in one specific case. However, in Valencia [another city in the north part of the country] we received the worst denouncement.” 

“From the 11 detainees [in Valencia], all of them where beaten. Some of them more seriously injured than others. One of them claimed to have been anally raped with a fusil (firearm),” said Luís Armando Betancourt, counsel for the defence in the Tribunal. 

“Some of the protesters detained were forced to kneel for five hours while they were beaten with the helmet of the authorities. Others were beaten with the butt of a gun.” Furthermore, “official agents stepped on the prisoner’s head, supporting all of their weight,” added Betancourt. 

Rupert Colville, the spokesperson for the Office of the United Nation High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCH), requested that the Venezuelan government prosecutes those responsible for the attacks on the protesters. 

Colville also refers to the journalist intimidation in the country “We have received disturbing reports of intimidation of journalists, some of whom have had their equipment confiscated, and still others who have been attacked.” 

The spokesman warned that some protesters detained could be prosecuted on charges of terrorism. Colville requested that the Venezuelan government should take the detainees promptly to court to determine the legality of their detention or order their release. 

The global response to the situation in Venezuela has included the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs of the European Commission, Catherine Ashton, who claimed that freedom of speech and peaceful demonstrations are essential human rights. 

José Miguel Insulza, General Secretary of the Organization of American States, requests the Venezuelan government to conduct a truthful, objective and transparent investigation.

 

Lia Lezama – Helsinki Times
Image: Leo Ramirez / AFP / Lehtikuva

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