Attacks, harassment and intimidation of those critical of government policies, including journalists and human rights defenders, were widespread. Unfounded charges were brought against those who opposed government policies. More special courts and prosecutor’s offices specializing in gender-based violence were established. However, the implementation of the 2007 law to eradicate violence against women remained slow.
In February, the limit on presidential terms was removed, following a referendum.
Social unrest increased; there were nearly twice as many protests between January and August as in the whole of 2008. The protests were sparked by issues such as discontent over labour rights and basic services, including a new education law opposed by the private education sector and the political opposition.
The National Assembly debated the possibility of legal reforms to regulate the use and possession of small arms, including harsher sentences for possession of weapons. According to the National Assembly’s Security and Defence Commission, there were between nine and 15 million illegal firearms in circulation.
Reforms to the armed forces in October included provisions allowing the creation of militias.
Ten police officers charged with criminal offences in the context of the 2002 attempted coup against President Chávez were sentenced to up to 30 years’ imprisonment in April. They were convicted of homicide and grievous bodily harm against anti-coup protesters amid concerns that not all of those who committed acts of violence in the context of the attempted coup had been brought to justice.
Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders and victims of human rights violations and their relatives seeking justice and redress continued to be attacked, threatened and harassed by the security forces.
- In August, two men shot at José Luis Urbano, President of the Foundation for the Defence of the Right to Education, an NGO working to promote and defend the constitutional right to free education for all. He and other members of the Foundation had been the targets of a series of attacks and threats. By the end of the year, nobody had been brought to justice for this attack or for the shooting in 2007 which left José Luis Urbano seriously injured. No protection measures had been put in place for him, his family or other members of the Foundation by the end of 2009.
- In October, Oscar Barrios was shot dead in the town of Guanayén, Aragua State, by two armed men dressed in similar clothing to that worn by police officers. The shooting followed a six-year campaign of harassment and intimidation against the Barrios family which began after they reported the killing of Narciso Barrios by police officers in 2003. Further killings of family members took place: Luis Barrios was killed in 2004 and Rigoberto Barrios in 2005. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on Venezuela to take the necessary measures to guarantee the right to life and security of the Barrios family and to bring those responsible for the killings to justice.
- In November, human rights defender Mijail Martínez was shot dead in Lara state. He had been working with the Committee of Victims Against Impunity in Lara on a documentary film featuring the stories of people who had suffered human rights violations at the hands of police officers. By the end of the year nobody had been brought to justice for the killing and no protection had been provided for the family.
Freedom of expression
Journalists were harassed, intimidated and threatened. At least 34 radio stations had their licences revoked for non-compliance with statutory telecommunications regulations. However, as noted in August by the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the authorities’ public statement that these stations “play[ed] at destabilizing Venezuela” indicated that their editorial stance could have been the actual reason behind the closure.
There was concern that a draft law which would criminalize the dissemination of information in media outlets which was “false” and could “harm the interest of the state” could undermine freedom of information and expression. The law remained before the National Assembly at the end of the year.
In August, staff at the Caracas offices of the television channel Globovisión were attacked by armed men. Teargas grenades were thrown and one of the security guards was beaten. Globovisión was widely regarded as opposing government policies. In January, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a ruling ordering the authorities to investigate reports of intimidation and physical and verbal attacks against Globovisión staff. No investigation had been initiated by the end of the year.
Repression of dissent
Members of opposition political parties were harassed, threatened and intimidated, including by the use of spurious criminal charges. On several occasions the security forces failed to intervene when government supporters physically attacked suspected opponents.
- In January, pro-government activists carrying iron bars, machetes and firearms forced their way into the Fundación Ateneo cultural centre in Caracas. They were protesting at the centre’s decision to organize a seminar commemorating the anniversary of the creation of Bandera Roja, a left-wing political party opposed to the government. The police failed to intervene.
- In September, Julio César Rivas, a student and leader of the United Active Youth of Venezuela, was detained and charged with “organizing armed groups”. He remained in a high-security prison for more than two weeks before being released on bail. He had been protesting in Valencia against the new law on education. His trial had not started by the end of the year.
- In August, Richard Blanco, Prefect of Caracas and President of the opposition Brave People’s Alliance was detained together with 11 civil servants. They had been protesting against the new education law which came into effect in August. In October, the 11 civil servants were released pending trial. Despite a reported lack of credible evidence against him, Richard Blanco remained in prison at the end of the year awaiting trial on charges of inciting violence resulting in injury to a police officer.
Violence against women and girls
Progress in the investigation and prosecution of cases of domestic violence remained slow. More courts and prosecutors’ offices specializing in dealing with gender-based violence were established. However, the numbers remained insufficient to deal with the high volume of cases. The Public Prosecutor’s Office in Caracas stated that it had received more than 12,000 complaints between January and August and that only half of those received could be dealt with.