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Venezuela crisis mission: Protesters executed for social media posts

A Venezuelan opposition demonstrator waves a flag at the riot police
A Venezuelan opposition demonstrator waves a flag at the riot police © FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro has imposed a ‘repulsive strategy of social control’ against his people Amnesty International said today following a crisis research mission in the country ( 20 February).

The escalating policy of repression has seen government security forces use excessive force against protesters and arbitrarily detain and execute hundreds of people. These attacks have been used as a means of controlling the people of Venezuela, and to punish residents of impoverished neighbourhoods who had decided to protest.

More than three million people have fled Venezuela since 2015, following hyperinflation, violence, political repression and shortages of food and medicine.

Faced with this bleak reality, thousands have taken to the streets to demand a change in government. Demonstrations were held across the country between 21 to 25 January with a national day of protest on 23 January. The protests, many taking place in impoverished areas, saw more than 900 people arbitrarily detained and at least 41 people killed, all of them from gunshot wounds.

There is a strong presence of pro-Nicolás Maduro armed groups (commonly known as “colectivos”) in the areas where protests took place and residents depend to a large extent on the limited state programmes to distribute staple foods.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas Director, said:

“The authorities under Nicolás Maduro are trying to use fear and punishment to impose a repulsive strategy of social control against those who demand change.

“His government is attacking the most impoverished people that it claims to defend, but instead it murders, detains and threatens them.”

Six protesters executed for social media posts

Amnesty documented six extrajudicial executions at the hands of the government’s Special Actions Force in several locations across the country, all worryingly similar. In each case, the victims were in some way linked to the protests that had been held in previous days and the criticism that several of them had made against Nicolás Maduro had gone viral on social networks.

The six victims were all young men whom authorities publicly described as having been killed in clashes with the public security force. This force tampered with the crime scenes and portrayed the victims as delinquents, saying that several of them had a criminal record, in an attempt to justify their deaths.

Luis Enrique Ramos Suárez was 29 years old when officers executed him on 24 January in the city of Carora. The day before, a voice note announcing protests against Nicolás Maduro and Carora's mayor’s office had gone viral. In this voice note, Luis Enrique was mentioned by his nickname as one of the organisers.

On 24 January, more than 20 heavily armed and mostly masked members of the security forces illegally raided the Ramos Suárez household and mistreated the 10 family members who were present, including six children. After identifying Luis Enrique by his nickname, they made him kneel in the middle of the room while one officer took photos and others beat him.

They locked the other family members in different rooms of the house, threatened them and beat them in different parts of the body. They then forcibly removed them from their home and transferred them in a national police convoy to a location two kilometres from the house. Minutes later, they shot Luis Enrique twice in the chest. He died immediately.

According to the testimonies obtained, after executing Luis Enrique, officers fired inside the house to simulate a shootout. In addition to fabricating evidence, they tampered with the crime scene, dragging the corpse to a vehicle in which it was finally transferred to the morgue, violating the minimum protocols for criminal investigation.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, said:

“As we have seen many times in Venezuela, the authorities want us to believe that those who died during the protests – mainly young people from low-income areas – were criminals. Their only crime was daring to ask for change and to demand a dignified existence.”

Protesters shot and killed

Amnesty also documented the cases of two young men killed and a young man wounded by firearms at the hands of state security forces while participating in protests. Both the national police and national guard participated in operations of this nature.

Alixon Pizani, a 19-year-old baker, died on 22 January from a bullet wound to the thorax while protesting with a group of friends in Catia, west of Caracas. According to witnesses, an officer wearing the national police uniform mounted on a motorcycle fired a handgun at random into the crowd, seriously injuring two people.

Without receiving any help from the authorities, Alixon was transferred to a health center, where he died. Alixon's family says that officials began firing rounds at his friends and relatives at the hospital entrance, who immediately took refuge inside. To date there is no evidence that the public prosecutor’s office has initiated an investigation.

Teenagers arrested and abused without justification

According to Venezuela’s official records, the authorities detained 137 children and adolescents throughout the country from January 21 to 31. Of those cases, Amnesty documented the arbitrary detention of six people, including four teenagers who participated in a protest, or simply watched it from close by, in the city of San Felipe on January 23.

In an interview with Amnesty, they said that upon being arrested, the authorities beat them, called them “guarimberos” (protestors who use violence) and “terrorists”, exposed them to irritant substances, deprived them of sleep, and threatened to kill them. According to their testimony, the officials who detained them belonged to several different state security forces and were accompanied by people dressed in civilian clothes.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, said:

“Arbitrarily detaining more than a hundred adolescents and subjecting them to cruel treatment, which at times may have constituted torture, shows how far the authorities are willing to go in their desperate attempts to stop the protests and subdue the population.”

The four teenagers were accused of crimes that, according to national law, they should not have been held in detention for, yet they were imprisoned for eight days by court order. They spent four of those days at the Rehabilitation Center for Minors, a military institution where they had their heads shaved and were forced to sing phrases like “We are Chávez’s children”.

On 29 January, one of the judges in charge of three of these cases publicly stated that she had been ordered to keep the adolescents in custody, despite there being no legal justification. After making this complaint, she was removed from her position and left the country. The four adolescents are awaiting their trial and remain subject to restrictions on their freedom.

The young men expressed how frustrating it was to live in an economic, social and political crisis at their age, where studying, eating or finding clothing is a daily challenge. Some expressed their desire to leave Venezuela in search of a better future.

UN should step in

The Venezuelan government must put an end to the policies of repression that they have developed in recent years. Amnesty is calling on the United Nations Human Rights Council to take action to address the total impunity that prevails in Venezuela, through the creation of an independent investigative body.

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