Feckless Judiciary Leaves Venezuelan Human Rights on the Chopping Block

Venezuelans protesting in Caracas to express their frustration with an unaccountable government. (<a href="https://flic.kr/p/qU2f9m" target="_blank">Carlos Díaz</a>)
Venezuelans continue to protest their brutal and unaccountable government. (Caracas, January 2015, Carlos Díaz)

EspañolIn February a mayor in Venezuela was arrested — again. The country’s intelligence police agency stormed the office of the metropolitan mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, and placed him behind bars with charges of plotting a coup against the government.

Last year, several former mayors were also detained after allegedly inciting violence against the government, including prominent opposition leader Leopoldo López. Their true crime, however, was disagreeing with the Maduro administration’s policies. According to the Association of Mayors for Venezuela, 43 percent of the country’s mayors have open court proceedings against them, while the total political-prisoner count is now only two short of 100.

The legal plight of these political detainees provides a clear representation of the broken judicial system in Venezuela. The protection of human rights depends on the ability of the judiciary to uphold the rule of law and castigate wrongdoers. Yet for more than a decade now, Venezuelan officials have used their complete control of the three branches of government to not only violate human rights without repercussions but to gradually legalize the forceful repression of their own citizens.

Hugo Chávez gave a fatal blow to the country’s democratic institutions in 2005, when he packed the Supreme Justice Tribunal (TSJ) with politically like-minded judges. The president added a dozen posts to the existing 20, making the small number of dissenting voices left in the court obsolete.

The concentration of power was further evidenced in 2009, when Mayor Ledezma’s only recourse to oppose the creation of a shadow mayoral office, that stripped him of his powers, was to embark on a life-threatening hunger strike. That same year, Chávez publicly called for Judge María Lourdes Afiuni to be condemned to 30 years in jail for granting conditional freedom to a government opponent who had been long detained without trial.

More recently, magistrates of the tribunal have publicly adhered to the goals of the socialist state plan. In last year’s opening statements, TSJ President Gladys Gutierrez said the institution’s mission is being adjusted to fit the nation’s second socialist plan, the Simón Bolívar National Project.

The rule of law has thus ceased to exist in Venezuela without a judicial branch to enforce it; only lackeys of the presidency remain, who legalize brutality instead of condemning it. To make matters worse, the country was left with little international recourse to justice when Venezuela officially withdrew from the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in 2014, four years after Chávez expelled members of Human Rights Watch.

The country is still part of the United Nations, and its Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but is in violation of most of its articles. These allude to the right to liberty, a fair and public trial, and freedom of speech, along with prohibitions on arbitrary arrests or mistreatment. These rights are also present in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, but with no one to enforce them.

The absence of an independent judicial system in the country created powerlessness among the citizenry, which in turn fueled the ongoing protests that climaxed in February 2014. As a result of the brutal repression that ensued, the government of Venezuela is responsible for dozens of its own citizens’ deaths and hundreds of arrests that sought to dissipate the public dissent.

To legitimize their actions, the Ministry of Defense issued a decree in January dubbed “shoot to kill,” wherein the armed forces are officially allowed to use deadly weapons against protesters on the streets.

Thousands of students who led many of the demonstrations have been jailed and tortured, many without receiving a trial. Some have even been kept in isolation in the intelligence agency’s prison that is five floors underground, with no light and no hope for justice. In fact, Rodolfo Gonzalez, charged with criminal conspiracy against the government, was found dead last month, having allegedly committed suicide after being held for 10 months without trial.

The United Nations, the European Parliament, President Barack Obama, and former presidents of several nations have recently urged Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to end human-rights violations. These may be ignored, as those in government continue to unfold their plan for a socialist Bolivarian republic, but the pleas will likely add flames to the fire of indignation in the streets.

Despite the Chavista government’s attempts to take hold of Simón Bolívar’s legacy, the Liberator’s words are on the side of Venezuelan citizens who clamor for freedom: “March swiftly to revenge the dead, to give life to the dying, to free the oppressed, and to give liberty to all.”

Edited by Fergus Hodgson.

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