Report: Even low-profile critics in Venezuela being muzzled by courts

August 13, 2015

It’s no secret that Venezuela has used its courts to sideline and silence prominent foes. But a new report by Human Rights Watch suggests the practice is more widespread and being used against even low-profile dissenters, from businessmen and doctors to Twitter-using fortune tellers.

Human Rights Watch documented at least 31 cases in the past nine months where people faced, or were threatened with, criminal charges for bad-mouthing the government.

The latest case occurred July 24, when authorities detained businessman Fray Roa Contreras the day after he criticized the administration’s economic polices on CNN. Contreras remains in custody and is being charged with disseminating false information, according to local news media.

“The government of Venezuela uses the justice system as a facade, but the reality is that Venezuelan judges and prosecutors have become obedient soldiers,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Venezuelan authorities have routinely abused their powers to limit free expression, undermining open, democratic debate that is especially critical with legislative elections coming up in December.”

The government has often accused critics of being part of a vast plot to destabilize the socialist administration. And the courts have thrown several high-profile politicians in jail on allegations that their protest activities were tantamount to coup plots.

This week, President Nicolás Maduro said he had “proof” that the U.S. Pentagon was engaged in a scheme to “fill our country with violence, chaos, death, division, uncertainty and anxiety” ahead of the key Dec. 6 congressional race.

Twenty-two of the cases cited in Thursday’s report titled “Venezuela: Critics Under Threat” are linked to Venezuelan media outlets that re-published reports that National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello is allegedly under investigation in the United States for being part of a drug-trafficking cartel.

Cabello, a ruling-party firebrand, filed civil and criminal defamation charges against 22 shareholders, editors and owners of Tal Cual and El Nacionalnewspapers, as well as the website La Patilla, claiming the articles were aimed at undermining the government.

The courts have banned the defendants from leaving the country as the criminal case continues.

Other cases highlighted in the report include:

Luis Vásquez, an engineer who was detained April 18 after criticizing electricity blackouts and the government’s power policies. The minister of justice took to Twitter to accuse Vásquez of being part of a “mission” to “destabilize the tranquility of the nation,” according to the report. Vásquez has been released but is still facing charges.

Dr. Ángel Sarmiento, the president of the State Bar Association of Medical Doctors of Aragua state, was investigated after he told local radio that that eight people had died in Maracay’s Central Hospital from an unidentified disease that caused fever, rashes and respiratory problems.

The statements came during a chikungunya outbreak, and Aragua Gov. Tarek El Aissami accused the doctor of “initiating a terrorist campaign and generating collective anxiety and shock” and for being a “spokesman of the fascist opposition,” the report found.

Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz appointed a prosecutor for the case and President Maduro said that such acts of “psychological terrorism” would be “severely punished.” Sarmiento eventually fled the country.

María Magaly Contreras, a fortune-teller who had been diagnosed with a psychological disorder, was detained in October in Maracaibo after tweeting predictions that Cuba’s Fidel Castro and “the dictatorship in Venezuela” would die. Contreras was held detention until April 10, when a judge suspended the case on condition that Contreras accept responsibility for the tweets and agree to eight months of psychological treatment.

Thursday’s report is likely to provide ammunition for those who fear the Obama administration’s incipient attempts to restore tattered relations with Venezuela. Despite deep trade ties, the two countries haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010.

Early this year, the U.S. denied visas and froze assets of Venezuelan officials. But in recent months U.S. State Department officials have been meeting with Venezuelan politicians — including Cabello — as both sides have said they want better ties.