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PUBLIC AI Index: AMR 53/003/2004

UA 98/04 Fear for safety/use of excessive force 04 March 2004

VENEZUELA Protestors in civil disturbances

The security forces have reportedly used excessive force, and detained large numbers of opposition supporters, during nationwide street protests against the government of President Hugo Chavez. At least nine people have died and scores of others have been injured, including a number of police officers. Amnesty International is concerned that there may be further politically motivated violence, and disproportionate police response.

The main opposition grouping, the Coodinadora Democrática, claim that up to 350 supporters have been detained around the country, with police allegedly fabricating evidence against a number of protest leaders. The authorities claim the figure is considerably lower, and those detained had participated in or incited violent protests. They have accused opposition leaders and activists of fomenting the violence in an attempt to force the President from office. The authorities have a responsibility maintain public order should also ensure that fundamental human rights are respected. Amnesty International is concerned at reports that the security forces have used excessive force on some occasions and failed to follow correct procedures for detention, and that these allegations are not being adequately investigated.

The street protests began on 27 February after news in the run up to the announcement of the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE), National Electoral Council's decision that many signatures on an opposition-sponsored petition for a "referendum revocatorio" ("recall referendum") to force President Chavez to resign, must be re-authenticated. The opposition required 2.4 million signatures for the petition to succeed in triggering the referendum vote, and claim they collected 3.2 million, but the electoral authority recognised only 1.8 million.

Since then there have been frequent confrontations between opposition supporters and the National Guard in many different parts of the country. While a number of demonstrations have reportedly been violent, with protestors using firearms and other weapons, the National Guard and the Direccion de Inteligencia Seguridad y Prevención (DISIP), internal security agency, have allegedly used excessive force to control the situation on a number of ocassions. In the capital, Caracas, at least 47 detainees have been brought before a judge and placed in pre-trial detention on charges such as "resisting arrest" (resistiencia a la autoridad) and "inciting crime" (instigación a delinquiar). However, many others detained around the country appear not to have been brought before a judge within the legal time limit.

Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998 and re-elected in 2000 for a six year term. There has been increasing polarization and repeated political violence since 2001, when an opposition movement began to gain strength. In April 2002 at least 50 people died during a failed coup when President Chavez was forced from power for three days. At the end of 2002 a general strike called by the opposition had a dramatic impact on the economy, but failed to force the President from power. Internationally sponsored negotiations led to a agreement in May 2003 committing both sides to seeking a "constitutional, peaceful, democratic and electoral solution" to the crisis. The National Electoral Council's decision on whether to accept the validity of sufficient signatures gathered by the opposition to trigger a recall referendum on President Chavez had been pending since the end of 2003.

The policing of public demonstrations has frequently resulted in human rights violations by the police and security forces in Venezuela over the last 15 years. The authorities have consistently failed to investigate and punish officials responsible for abuses or effectively implement United Nations guidelines on the use of force or firearms. Incidents of political violence, attributed to both government and opposition supporters, during President Chavez's administration, such as the deaths and injuries during the attempted coup of 11 April 2002, have not been investigated effectively and have gone unpunished. The impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators encourages further human rights violations in a particularly volatile political climate.