Venezuela’s Judicial System Abets Repression, Says U.N. Rights Panel

An investigation found that political interference pushed judges and prosecutors to provide legal cover for killings, torture and other abuses.

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GENEVA — Rather than upholding civil rights, Venezuela’s judicial system has served as an instrument of repression at the hands of political leaders and the security services at their disposal, United Nations human rights experts said on Thursday.

Growing political interference in the judicial system has eroded its independence and created an apparatus that provides legal cover for abuses that include extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence and enforced disappearances, a three-person fact-finding panel reported after a year’s investigation.

“Instead of providing reasonable protection to victims of human rights violations and crimes, the Venezuelan justice system has played a significant role in the state’s repression of government opponents” and those seen as interfering with the regime’s political or economic interests, Marta Valinas, a Portuguese jurist who chairs the panel, told journalists at the release of its findings.

Venezuela’s attorney general, Tarek William Saab, dismissed the findings when he addressed the press on Thursday, saying they were part of an effort “to sully the work of all officials, prosecutors of the justice system.”

But in the same address, Mr. Saab announced the creation of a special judicial unit to investigate human rights violations, calling it “a new sign of commitment in the defense of human rights.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council set up the expert panel two years ago to investigate gross rights violations in Venezuela since 2014, the year after President Nicolas Maduro took office.

The panel’s first report, released a year ago, implicated Mr. Maduro and members of his government in abuses that could amount to crimes against humanity and called for an investigation to determine their culpability.

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Tarek William Saab, Venezuela’s attorney general, meeting with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, in Caracas in 2019.Credit…Yuri Cortez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The first report provided a chilling counterpoint to efforts by the Maduro government to improve its international image and present a moderate face by engaging with U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet and releasing political prisoners.

Ms. Valinas said the panel is continuing to investigate the crimes identified in that report, but added that the second report, which it will present to the Human Rights Council next week, focused on the workings of Venezuela’s judicial system and conducted a detailed analysis of 183 detentions.

Venezuelan authorities did not allow panel members into the country and did not reply to any of the 17 letters they sent to the government over the past year asking for information. The panel based its conclusions on 177 interviews with current and former judges, prosecutors and others within the judicial system, as well as with lawyers for the victims of abuse. They also read thousands of pages of legal case files, including arrest and search warrants.

Of the 86 judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers the panel interviewed, virtually all — 98.2 percent of them, the panel said — reported that political cases were not investigated or prosecuted in accordance with the law.

Judges and prosecutors received instructions on how they were to proceed, the panel said, and often appeared to have played “key roles” in covering wrongdoing — for example, enabling arbitrary detention by resorting to unjustified arrest warrants, lengthy pretrial detentions, and criminal charges based on illegally obtained or falsified evidence, including evidence obtained by torture.

Many of the defendants in the 183 prosecutions analyzed by the panel said they had been tortured or subjected to brutal treatment, including sexual violence, and 67 of the defendants had appeared in court exhibiting clear marks of mistreatment.

“The actions and omissions of judges hearing torture allegations had devastating consequences on victims, including continued torture and deteriorating health,” the panel said. One detainee had suffered a miscarriage from torture inflicted after a judge returned her to the custody of the military counterintelligence agency, which she claimed was abusing her.

But resistance by judges, prosecutors and lawyers to political interference is also risky, the panel concluded. More than half the defense lawyers who responded to a questionnaire said they had faced threats and harassment, and nearly half the former judges and prosecutors the panel contacted had fled the country out of safety concerns.

Among the cases detailed in the report is that of Franklin Alfredo Caldera, a Venezuelan who U.N. investigators said was kidnapped in Colombia in February of this year and ferried across the border into Venezuela, where he was held in military custody.

There, Mr. Caldera, a former commando in the Venezuelan military, was tortured with needles and electric shocks, suffocated, beaten and stabbed with a knife, according to interviews conducted by U.N. investigators.

Mr. Caldera managed to escape, and telephoned several people to alert them to what had happened; three of them spoke with the U.N. team. The day after his escape, the report says, military intelligence officers recaptured him and shot him in the leg. He remains in custody.

In an interview following the release of the U.N. report, Mr. Caldera’s father, said that his son, kidnapped in a foreign land, had not received medical assistance since he was shot, and has not had access to a lawyer of his choosing.

“I ask that my son’s case be annulled for all of these irregularities,” he said.

Reporting was contributed by Isayen Herrera in Caracas, Venezuela, and Julie Turkewitz in Bogota, Colombia.

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