By Antonio Maria Delgado
From Miami Herald
Venezuela’s justice system is exceedingly unjust, with its courts being used as a tool of repression used to arbitrarily jail activists and political opponents to the Nicolás Maduro regime while turning a blind eye to a growing number of human rights violations, a United Nations report said Thursday.
In a 200-page report presented in Geneva on Thursday, the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela said that Maduro’s intelligence agencies routinely persecute activists and political adversaries, falsifying evidence to arrest them for political reasons and even using torture, force disappearances, and extrajudicial executions.
The mission said that members of the judiciary share the responsibility with Maduro and other high-ranking regime officials for the human rights violations.
The recurrent due process violations in Venezuela reveal a judiciary lacking independence that has allowed serious human rights violations against regime opponents to go unchecked, the report said.
“Judges and prosecutors have played, through their acts and omissions, an important role in the grave violations of human rights abuses committed by diverse actors of the Venezuelan state against supposed or real adversaries,” mission President Marta Valiñas said.
The mission said it has reason to believe that high-ranking government officials, including Maduro and top ministers, have ordered, participated, or failed to stop human rights violations from being committed.
The U.N. group was appointed to investigate a series of grave claims allegedly perpetrated in Venezuela, including extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture, and sexual violence. Most of those actions were directed toward government critics or high-profile individuals whose actions are perceived as a threat to the regime, and enforced by the court system.
“Amid Venezuela’s profound human rights crisis, the independence of the judiciary has become deeply eroded, jeopardizing its role in imparting justice and safeguarding individual rights,” Valiñas said. “Our latest investigation found reasonable grounds to believe that, under intensifying political pressure, judges and prosecutors have, through their acts and omissions, played a significant role in serious violations and crimes against real and perceived opponents committed by various State actors in Venezuela.”
Of the many cases of human rights violations cases reviewed, the commission found no evidence of high-level officials being investigated or prosecuted for their alleged involvement.
The report specifically mentions the 2015 death of opposition leader Fernando Albán, who fell to his death from the 10th floor while detained in the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service headquarters, and the 2018 death of military officer Rafael Acosta Arévalo in a Venezuelan courtroom after he was severely tortured by security forces.
“The overwhelming majority of human rights violations and crimes we previously documented targeting government opponents have not resulted in thorough investigations, prosecutions and convictions of all those allegedly responsible,” said Francisco Cox Vial, a member of the U.N. mission.
“The centrality of the justice system to the Venezuelan human rights crisis cannot be overstated. Had prosecutorial and judicial actors performed their constitutional role appropriately, they could have either prevented the crimes and violations from being committed, or placed rigorous impediments upon public security and intelligence services’ ability to commit them.”
According to the mission, judges ordered pretrial detention as a routine rather than an exceptional measure, while prosecutors and judges at times sustained detention and criminal charges based on supporting evidence that did not indicate criminal acts or demonstrate the defendant’s participation.
In some cases, judges provided legal cover for illegal arrests by issuing arrest warrants retroactively.
The mission also found reasonable grounds to believe that high-level Venezuelan political actors have exerted significant influence over the judiciary.
Sources from within the judiciary reported that judges at all levels routinely receive orders on how to decide their cases. Those orders, at times, come directly from senior government figures and are channeled via the Supreme Tribunal of Justice leadership.
Judges who refused to give in to political pressure have been vilified and intimidated. The report mentioned the 2009 arrest and prosecution of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni.
This has resulted in a climate of fear, the report said. Nearly half of the former judges and prosecutors interviewed, along with many of their family members, have had to leave Venezuela fearing for their safety; many others declined to speak to the mission out of fear of reprisals, it said.
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