Press Release

IACHR Expresses Concern over Suspension of Parliamentary Immunity for Vice President of Venezuela’s National Assembly

November 17, 2017

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Washington, D.C.—The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its concern over the charges brought by the Attorney General’s Office of Venezuela against the Vice President of the National Assembly, Freddy Guevara Cortez; the Supreme Court’s decision giving merit to the charges; and the suspension of his parliamentary immunity by the National Constituent Assembly. Freddy Guevara Cortez and other members of the Voluntad Popular opposition party are beneficiaries of current precautionary measures, which were granted by the IACHR in January 2017 considering the risk they face due to threats, harassment, and arbitrary detentions, among other acts of violence, as a consequence of their political stance.

On October 3, 2017, the Supreme Court of Venezuela (TSJ) decided, in Judgment No. 69, that there is sufficient convincing evidence to determine that Congressman Freddy Guevara is responsible for “having become involved in an ongoing manner in the crimes of association, continued public instigation, and the use of adolescents to commit a crime, as defined in Article 37 of the Organic Law against Organized Crime and Financing of Terrorism.” This has to do with the participation of the congressman and leader of the Voluntad Popular party in the protests held in early 2017. The article of the law in question, related to association, applies to members of organized crime groups.

The TSJ concluded that in cases of crimes detected in the act, the mechanism of impeachment on the merits is not necessary to proceed with the prosecution of officials with immunity. The TSJ also placed the decision on parliamentary immunity in the hands of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) and barred the legislator from leaving the country. The ANC immediately stripped Congressman Guevara of his immunity, on November 6, 2017, and thus the case against him is moving forward.

Since 2013, the Commission has received information regarding the use of the Organic Law against Organized Crime and the Financing of Terrorism to criminalize rights defenders and stymie public protest. The IACHR has received information indicating that due to the ambiguity of the terms defined in this law and generic concepts, demonstrators and human rights defenders have reportedly been prosecuted for crimes such as “organized crime” or “terrorist acts.”

In that regard, the IACHR reiterates that definitions of crimes that penalize speech or protest demonstrations protected under the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association must use precise and unambiguous language that narrowly defines the criminal offense, thus giving full meaning to the principle that one cannot be punished for doing something that is not prohibited by law. This means a clear definition of the criminalized conduct that makes it possible to distinguish it from behaviors that are protected by civil and political rights or from other types of conduct that are punishable but without imprisonment, as ambiguity creates the opportunity for abuse of power. Criminal sanctions involving expression must also respond to legitimate interests recognized by international law and must be proportionate to the end being pursued and necessary in the context of a democratic society. The Commission notes that Freddy Guevara is the third leader of the Voluntad Popular opposition party to be prosecuted in the last three years under the aforementioned law, after Leopoldo López and Carlos Vecchio.

There is a direct relationship between the exercise of political rights and the concept of democracy as a way of organizing the State, and Venezuela must guarantee citizens and organized political groups the right to political participation and to freedom of expression without fear of reprisals, and allow and encourage pluralistic, broad, robust, and inclusive public debate. A non-violent call for a change in State policy or a change in the government itself falls under specially protected speech.

In this case, it is also of particular concern to the IACHR that this criminal prosecution is being carried out against an opposition legislator and that he is being prosecuted based on a withdrawal of immunity by the ANC, a body other than the one to which he belongs, which is the National Assembly. In this regard, the IACHR reiterates that both the legislative branch and the judiciary, as well as judges, must enjoy sufficient guarantees of independence in the free exercise of their duties so as not to be subjected to undue abuse or restrictions by other branches or institutions of the State.

The IACHR reiterates to the State of Venezuela its request to adopt the necessary measures to protect the life and political rights of Congressman Freddy Guevara Cortez, as it requested in January 2017 in granting precautionary measures for him and other members of his party.

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 the respect for and defense of 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. 184/17