NGO prisoners of conscience conditionally released

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Azul Positivo is a non-governmental and humanitarian organization that since 2004 works to promote inclusion, understanding and treatment to HIV+ patients, as well as transversal issues such as sexually transmitted infections, diversity and sexual violence. Since 2006, they have developed community-based projects in various towns and cities in Zulia State (Western Venezuela). Through their work, they have contributed to the work of state public health entities, such as the National Service of Medicine and Forensic Sciences, the Regional AIDS Programme and the Ministry of Health. They have also been an ally of United Nations System agencies such as UNAIDS, UNHCR and UNFPA, implementing projects on the border with Colombia on sexual and reproductive health.

On 12 January 2021, at approximately 11:30 a.m., a commission of at least 15 officials from the General Directorate of Military Counter-Intelligence (DGCIM) went to the headquarters of the civil society organisation Azul Positivo located in the Aventura shopping centre in the city of Maracaibo to carry out an alleged administrative procedure related to the humanitarian assistance activities that the organization carries out in various communities in Zulia State. 

For over six hours, the directors and several members of the team were held at their offices and interrogated about their humanitarian work. After this time, Johan León Reyes, Yordy Bermúdez, Layners Gutiérrez Díaz, Alejandro Gómez Di Maggio and Miguel Guerra Raydan, all of them civilians, were taken to the DGCIM headquarters, without having access to legal assistance during that time. Later in the day, another worker at Azul Positivo, Luis Ferrebuz was arrested at his home by DGCIM officials. Miguel Guerra was later released.

On 14 January, all five detainees were brought before an ordinary civilian court and formally charged with trumped up crimes, namely unlawful acquisition of goods and services, money laundering and association to commit crimes. This attack on Azul Positivo comes at a time of heightened government stigmatization and harassment of other civil society organizations, particularly targeting their international funding. With over 15 years of respected, trusted and impactful humanitarian work, Azul Positivo is highly regarded by international aid organizations and local partners and activists. 

On 10 February, all five prisoners of consciences were conditionally released, subject to undue restrictions to their freedom, including facing criminal charges and having to report themselves to court every 30 days. Their conditional release came after widespread international outrage, including support from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Nicolás Maduro’s government has implemented a policy of repression and continually harassed, prosecuted and censored activists and civil society organizations working to protect the rights of Venezuelans amidst a humanitarian complex crisis and a deep human rights crisis that has forced Venezuelans to flee in unprecedented numbers in search of safety and a dignified future abroad. By December 2020, over 5.4 million had fled the country.

All these events are not isolated. Since the beginning of January, civil society in Venezuela has reported a new crackdown wave against human rights activists and human rights defenders, mainly focusing on criminalizing international cooperation. This new set of repressive attacks have also affected independent media outlets. 
Last year, a report from the independent international fact-finding mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela documented hundreds of cases of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment committed in the country since 2014, and concluded that these grave human rights violations may amount to crimes against humanity.

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