Amnesty International report 2000

Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela

Head of state and government: Colonel Hugo Chávez Frías
Capital: Caracas
Population: 22.8 million
Official language: Spanish
Death penalty: abolitionist for all crimes
1999 treaty ratifications/signatures: Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons

The human rights situation in Venezuela remained poor throughout 1999. The new government, which came to office in February, repeatedly stated its commitment to the protection of human rights. Progressive constitutional and other reforms favouring the protection of human rights had yet to be translated into effective administrative and practical steps. Criminal suspects continued to be arbitrarily arrested and ill-treated; some were tortured or extrajudicially executed. Chronic inefficiency in the administration of justice resulted in continuing prison overcrowding and conditions which amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, a long-standing institutional feature of the penal system. At least 400 prison inmates were killed in prison violence. Some 3,700 asylum-seekers fleeing political violence in neighbouring Colombia were returned to the country without being given access to full and fair asylum determination procedures.

In February Colonel Hugo Chávez Frías, leader of a failed military coup in 1992, became President following democratic elections in December 1998. His government — which came to office against a background of serious economic problems, and dissatisfaction with traditional political parties and official corruption — promised radical reforms. A new Constitution, approved by a significant majority of the electorate in December, was brought into effect the same month. Congress failed to approve long-awaited legislation in favour of strengthening indigenous rights and prohibiting torture. The suspension of at least 120 judges was explained by the government as one of the initial steps to reform a judiciary widely regarded as notoriously inefficient and subject to political influence. Between 20,000 and 50,000 people were reported to have died as a result of flooding and landslides in the northern state of Vargas following torrential rainfall in mid-December.

The new Constitution
In November, following several months of consultation with political parties and organizations representing different sectors of civil society, the National Constituent Assembly finalized the drafting of the new Constitution. The Constitution contained provisions to strengthen the protection of human rights. These included the recognition of international human rights treaties, the exclusion of human rights cases from the jurisdiction of the military justice system, and the outlawing of enforced disappearances. Non-governmental human rights organizations characterized these and other provisions as markedly progressive, but warned that they were at risk of being undermined as a result of other constitutional provisions which increased the political power of the armed forces. The Constitution did not prohibit the armed forces from intervening in political affairs.

Killings by the security forces
At least 100 people — the majority suspected of criminal offences — were reported to have been killed by members of the police and armed forces. This figure represented a decrease over past years. Most of the victims were killed by the police, but at least 15 were killed by members of the army. Some 50 of the victims died in circumstances suggesting that they were the victims of extrajudicial executions.

Torture and ill-treatment
Cases of torture and ill-treatment continued to be reported despite legal guarantees protecting the right to personal integrity. The most commonly reported abuses consisted of the police beating detainees on arrest or during interrogation. Many of the victims and their families did not file complaints before the authorities because they feared reprisals. Those cases in which a complaint was filed were rarely investigated independently, and the ineffectiveness of the judiciary meant that cases of torture rarely resulted in convictions.

Prison conditions
The crisis in the penal system continued despite marked reductions in overcrowding and in the proportion of prisoners being held without trial. Prisoners continued to face endemic violence. At least 400 prisoners were killed in 1999, the majority as a result of violence by fellow prisoners, but some as a result of attacks by guards. The number of deaths led some observers to comment that the authorities had virtually lost control of the penal system. The physical conditions and lack of basic services suffered by prisoners amounted in many cases to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Scores of prisoners were reported to have died as a result of inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care.
In September, and again in November, government officials once again publicly recognized the poor conditions prevailing in Venezuela's prisons and added that the new administration was intent on resolving the problem.

Recent reforms to the administration of justice, including ensuring that prosecutors and judges independently and rigorously apply provisions contained in the new Organic Code of Criminal Procedures, had yet to show positive results in combating the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for torture and extrajudicial executions.
In November, in the context of the government's declared commitment to respect human rights, Venezuela announced before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that it had assumed responsibility for the deaths of 37 people, the enforced disappearance of four others, and beatings inflicted on a further three. All 44 had been the victims of abuses by the security forces during a week of demonstrations and looting in February 1989 in response to economic measures introduced by the government of the then President, Carlos Andrés Pérez. The Inter-American Court had
not determined the reparations and damages to be
paid by the government to the victims' families by the end of 1999.

The authorities failed to give some 3,700 Colombians, who fled from political violence across the border into Venezuela, access to a full and fair asylum procedure to identify those at risk if returned to Colombia. They had fled in four separate waves, following the start of counter-insurgency offensives by Colombian security forces and paramilitaries. All were returned to Colombia, the majority apparently voluntarily. However, at least 100 of the asylum-seekers were forcibly returned after requesting assistance from Venezuelan human rights organizations in applying for asylum

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