Press Release

IACHR Concerned about Harassment against Human Rights Defenders in Venezuela

February 22, 2019

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is concerned about constant harassment against human rights defenders in Venezuela. The IACHR urges the Venezuelan State to take urgent action to ensure that human rights defenders can work in the country without being subjected to intimidation.

In recent years, the Commission has repeatedly asked the Venezuelan State to take measures to counter stigmatization and harassment campaigns against human rights defenders in that country. In the context of the ongoing crisis, the IACHR has been informed of threats against Marco Antonio Ponce, chairman of the organization Observatorio Venezolano de Conflictividad Social (OVCS), who has been a beneficiary of IACHR precautionary measures since 2015 and was previously subjected to smear campaigns by several pro-government media. On January 25, the pro-government news website Misión Verdad allegedly published a story that portrayed protests around the country in January 2019 as destabilizing events funded by NGOs that promote and seek “to extend to poorer neighborhoods this rationale of hatred and confrontation.” Misión Verdad is said to have illustrated that story with a photo of Ponce. Further, on February 6, the website for the TV program Con el mazo dando, led by the president of Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly, allegedly accused human rights organizations—particularly Provea—of being funded by “the empire” from Colombia with humanitarian aid as an excuse.

The Commission was also informed of harassment against the coordinators of the organization Foro Penal in the states of Nueva Esparta and Zulia, who are allegedly being followed and watched by the Bolivarian National Guard. According to those reports, a lawyer who works with Foro Penal to provide legal advice to people arrested in January in the protest context has received death threats.

The IACHR has said that repeated comments to stigmatize human rights defenders may contribute to exacerbating the atmosphere of hostility and intolerance they face among certain social groups, which could affect the lives and personal integrity of those defenders and increase their vulnerability.

“We are concerned about comments branding defenders as ‘enemies of the State’ or ‘internal enemies,’ because they not only delegitimize those people’s work but also create a hostile environment for the defense of human rights,” said Commissioner Francisco José Eguiguren, IACHR Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and Rapporteur for Venezuela. “Besides, such comments are usually followed by the launch of unwarranted criminal proceedings against those people,” Eguiguren added.

Along the same lines, the IACHR was informed that Laura Gallo—leader of the Popular Will party’s Committee for Political Prisoners and mother of human rights defender Gabriel Gallo, Foro Penal coordinator in the state of Yaracuy—was arrested and incarcerated on January 23, 2019, in a context of arbitrary arrests conducted during social protests. On January 31, following a court hearing, Laura Gallo was granted a conditional release but charged with criminal association, terrorism and inciting violence.

The Commission stresses that a person should only be deprived of their liberty for concrete actions that warrant their arrest. The Venezuelan State must take any measures necessary to prevent investigations from leading to unfair or baseless trials against people who legitimately demand respect and protection for human rights in the country.

“We call on the State to stop criminalizing human rights defenders. The authorities must effectively ensure that people who defend human rights can do their work,” said the IACHR’s president, Commissioner Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño.

The Commission notes that the work of human rights defenders is essential to build and strengthen a solid, lasting democratic society, and that defenders play a key role in the process to fully ensure the rule of law and to strengthen democracy.

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. 040/19