IACHR Urges Venezuela to Permanently Stop Trying Civilians in Military Criminal Proceedings

March 24, 2021

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Washington, D.C. – Given the ruling issued by the Constitutional Chamber of Venezuela's Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ, by its Spanish acronym) that confirmed the competent jurisdiction of military criminal courts to try military offenses committed by civilians, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) calls on the State to permanently stop military courts trying civilians.

The IACHR was informed of TSJ ruling 0246 of December 14, 2020, which—despite mentioning inter-American standards to declare null and void a decision made in favor of two civilians by the Tenth Military Control Court for the Criminal Law Circuit in the state Zulia—confirmed the competent jurisdiction of military criminal courts to try military offenses committed by civilians. According to the Commission, this reasoning does not reflect the absolute nature of the ban on the practice of trying civilians in military criminal courts.  

According to civil society reports, since January 1, 2014 until now, at least 870 civilians have been taken before military courts, and at least 19 are still being deprived of liberty. In 2020, the case of trade-union leader Rubén González made headlines, when a court martial in Caracas ratified the sentence to five years and nine months in prison that had been previously issued against him by the Fifth Military Court in the state of Monagas. In 2018, surgeon Iván Marulanda was arrested and taken before military courts in Fuerte Tiuna, and he was deprived of liberty for over two years. In 2017, the TSJ ruled that opposition legislator Gilber Caro did not have parliamentary immunity because he was a substitute legislator. The TSJ went on to allow his arrest and trial for treason before military criminal courts. The Commission is particularly concerned about the fact that the use of military criminal courts has intensified during times of protests (as in 2017, when more than 750 civilians were taken before military criminal courts). 

The IACHR stresses that, in a democratic State where the rule of law is paramount, military criminal courts must have a restricted, exceptional scope and seek to protect special legal interests linked to the role that the law formally assigns to military forces. Military criminal courts should therefore not try civilians and must only try military officers for crimes and other offenses involving the rights of the military. Consequently, the State of Venezuela must prioritize the adoption of any relevant measures, including legislative measures, to adapt domestic legislation and to transfer to ordinary courts any legal cases that should never have been taken to military criminal courts in the first place.  

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 071/21