Threats, violence rising for Venezuelan activists
CARACAS, Venezuela—Humberto Prado has seen plenty of danger. Once an inmate in some of South America's most feared lockups, he later was pardoned and became a prison director himself, then spent years campaigning for reforms in Venezuela's notorious prisons.
Now, though, he says he's more frightened than he's ever been.
Prado, 48, said he's received numerous death threats, anonymous and often in the dead of night, since denouncing the government over a prison where inmates rioted in June. He says there is no sign officials are taking his complaints seriously, and in fact may be inspiring the harassment.
Venezuelan Justice Minister Tarek El Aissami has publicly accused Prado of fomenting the prison rebellion by criticizing conditions there.
Many activists say the threats against Prado fit a disturbing pattern: threats and attacks after criticism of alleged government human rights abuses. As with Prado, the government has ignored, and even mocked, their accounts.
The growing number of such cases is placing the government of leftist President Hugo Chavez under increasing international scrutiny, as human rights groups take their complaints to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the United Nations.
Prado said that as the threats intensified over the summer, he fled with his family to Spain for a time, aided by Amnesty International. "We live in very bad times," Prado said after returning to Venezuela in August. "We left our house for the safety of my children."
Over the past 12 years, 83 attacks have targeted activists in Venezuela, with 10 activists killed since 2003, according to human rights organizations. Before President Hugo Chavez took office in 1999, such killings were rare. None was reported during Chavez's first year in power.
Rights groups also report arbitrary police arrests of activists, illegal wiretapping, restrictions on public meetings imposed by prosecutors and state-sponsored smear campaigns.
The issue came to a head this week as the United Nations' Human Rights Council issued 148 recommendations for Venezuela, calling for the country to support the independent work of non-governmental organizations and defend human rights activists.
Venezuela rejected that and 37 other recommendations. Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Tomas Porras Ponce de Leon said they were made by representatives of "old empires" and meddled in Venezuelan affairs.
The week before, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro had criticized at least some human rights movements as "an international bureaucracy very influenced by the imperialist nations."
During the June prison uprising, state television broadcast an interview with a purported inmate who accused rights organizations of intentionally inciting violence inside the penitentiary.
The alleged inmate, whose face was covered with a hood, stood with his back to the camera as he accused non-governmental organizations of issuing instructions meant "to create chaos, to produce a nationwide prison emergency."
Liliana Ortega, director of the Committee of Victims' Relatives, noted that numerous nonprofit groups that have been critical of government policies have been subject to investigations to determine the origin of their funding.
Government officials have alleged that such groups are receiving funding from foreign countries, now a punishable offense under legislation approved last year by lawmakers loyal to Chavez.
"The human rights organizations and activists play a fundamental role in democracy," Ortega said. "And if they cannot exercise this role ... the health of democracy is severely weakened."
The Justice Ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
During a recent news conference, chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega mockingly mimicked activists who have complained of aggression, saying: "I'm a victim of harassment, but I never explain what it consists of."
She added that "every complaint that has been filed here in the prosecutor's office has been given due process."
Targeted activists and their families, however, say they've lost faith in the nation's courts and have sought justice elsewhere.
Prado, who founded a prison monitoring group in 2002, received threats so serious that the Costa Rica based Inter-American Court called on government in 2009 to ensure his protection. He had once been the country's most celebrated ex-convicts, overcoming a teenage conviction for armed robbery to become a widely praised prison and human rights administrator.
In March, the Inter-American Court agreed to consider the case of Joe Castillo, a 32-year-old activist who was gunned down in 2003 by unidentified assailants. It was the first time the court had accepted a case dealing with the murder of a Venezuelan activist. Plaintiffs accuse the state of failing to protect him despite threats.
Castillo had worked with Colombian refugees seeking housing and other services. He was struck by seven bullets in 2003 and died instantly as he was picking up his 2-year-son from kindergarten.
Mijail Martinez, 24, was shot to death in 2009 on the doorstep of his home in the city of Barquisimeto after working with people allegedly killed by police. His father, Victor Martinez, has also brought his son's case to the Inter-American Court, saying he was seeking "the justice I can't get in Venezuela."
To be sure, the number of attacks against rights activists in Venezuela remains low in comparison to other countries in the region such as Guatemala and Colombia, where police and paramilitary gangs regularly target activists. Those attacks have particularly hit those monitoring security forces battling drug cartels and rebel groups.
What alarms Venezuelan activists is the increasing frequency of the attacks, and seeming government indifference to finding those responsible.
The Committee of Victims' Relatives reported this year that 70 percent of cases involving attacks on human rights activists remain in preliminary investigative stages, 13 percent are being tried and 17 percent have been closed or dismissed.
Activist Luis Aguilera said he ran into trouble after defending a family in which seven members were allegedly killed by police. He said anti-drug police stopped him at Venezuela's main airport for several hours in 2006 after he announced he planned to bring the case to the Inter-American court.
"I have been the object of persecution, of threats, and all this for being a human-rights activist," Aguilera said. "Always the modus operandi is the same. First they threaten the relatives and the witnesses and so on like this with the goal of making the victim stop demanding justice. What is evident is that it's the policy of the state."
Prado said he also believed the government was behind the threats he's received.
In addition to the late-night calls, a photograph of the activist along with the addresses of his home and office were posted on a blog with a message reading, "People: recognize him" and, yet more ominously, "Capital Punishment."