Deaths Blamed on Chavez’ Security Forces Rose by 15 Percent Last Year, Says State Dep’t Report

By Edwin Mora | April 12, 2011 | 3:55 AM EDT

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez celebrates the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to power, in September 2009. (AP Photo

( – Deaths attributed to leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’ security forces rose by 15 percent in the year ending September 2010, climbing to a total of 237, according to the U.S. State Department’s annual report on human rights around the world.

Most of the 237 deaths – 199 – were “executions,” and the rest included “nine cases of excessive use of force, 16 cases of indiscriminate use of force, 10 cases of torture or cruel treatment, and three cases of negligence,” stated the report’s 65-page chapter on Venezuela.

The report for 2010, which was released by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday, said Venezuelan security forces were accused of “committing unlawful killings, including summary executions of criminal suspects.”

The Venezuelan Program of Action and Education in Human Rights, a non-governmental organization (NGO), reported 237 deaths due to security force actions from October 2009 through September 2010, a 15-percent increase over the previous year.

Criminal sentences against security force members were usually “light” and “convictions often were overturned on appeal,” the report said.

“During the year government security forces used tear gas, water hoses, and rubber bullets to suppress peaceful protests.”

Releasing the report, Clinton named Venezuela among countries accused of clamping down on civil society groups.

While the report found no cases on politically motivated killings by the Venezuelan government or its agents, it said it was evident that Chavez continued to silence the opposition and use the state’s judicial power to punish and persecute those who criticized him during the period under review, with the media a particular target.

“The government took reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of the president or government policy,” stated the report.

“Senior federal and state government leaders actively harassed and intimidated privately owned and opposition-oriented television stations, media outlets, and journalists throughout the year using threats, property seizures, and criminal investigations and prosecutions,” it said.

“Government officials, including the president, used government-controlled media outlets to accuse private media owners, directors, and reporters of fomenting antigovernment destabilization campaigns and coup attempts.”

The law in Venezuela “provides for freedom of speech and of the press,” but also “makes insulting the president punishable by six to 30 months in prison without bail, with lesser penalties for insulting lower-ranking officials,” the report said.

“Inaccurate reporting that disturbs the public peace is punishable by a two-to-five-year prison term,” it said. “The requirement that media disseminate only ‘true’ information was undefined and open to politically motivated interpretation.”

Although Venezuelan law provides for criminal penalties in cases of official corruption, “credible observers alleged the government did not implement the law effectively or fairly and frequently prosecuted its political opponents selectively on corruption charges to harass, intimidate, or imprison them.”

The State Department listed the following human rights violations in Venezuela during 2010: “unlawful killings, including summary executions of criminal suspects; widespread criminal kidnappings for ransom; prison violence and harsh prison conditions; inadequate juvenile detention centers; arbitrary arrests and detentions; corruption and impunity in police forces; corruption, inefficiency, and politicization in a judicial system characterized by trial delays and violations of due process.”

Other abuses included “selective prosecution for political purposes; infringement of citizens’ privacy rights; restrictions on freedom of expression; government threats to sanction or close television stations and newspapers; corruption at all levels of government; threats against domestic NGOs; violence against women; trafficking in persons; and restrictions on workers' right of association.”

On the day of the report’s release, the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington issued a statement claiming progress in the human rights field.

“Twelve years since having been for the first time overwhelmingly elected by the Venezuelan people to transform the country, President Hugo Chavez’s government continues expanding political, economic and social rights for all Venezuelan,” said the statement, which made no direct reference to the State Department report.

“Despite claims of attacks on freedom of expression,  more than 86 percent of the media on public airwaves is privately owned and operated, and most is controlled by the government’s political opposition,” the embassy statement said.

“The vibrant debate in the several Venezuelan newspapers just ratifies the vivacity of freedom of expression and press in the country.”

The State Department report said the rights situation in Colombia, Venezuela’s neighbor to the west, improved last year under President Juan Santos. It noted that “extrajudicial executions continued to decline, and several senior military officers were convicted of human rights abuses.”

However, as in Venezuela, the report highlighted that “there were instances in which elements of the security forces acted independently of civilian control” in Colombia.

Problems in Colombia included “insubordinate military collaboration with new illegal armed groups and paramilitary members who refused to demobilize” in addition to “occasional harassment and intimidation of journalists,” it said.