HRW: Venezuela should protect rights activist

By CHRISTOPHER TOOTHAKER | August 29, 2011 | 11:35 PM EDT

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A human rights group demanded Monday that President Hugo Chavez's government provide protection for an activist who had to flee Venezuela after being threatened for alleging human rights abuses in prisons.

Human Rights Watch said the government should comply with a November 2009 order by the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights that Venezuelan authorities shield Humberto Prado from potential attacks.

The group said Prado left the country on June 27 after receiving numerous anonymous threats following his condemnation of the government's handling of armed uprisings at two prisons that month. The criticism by Prado, who is director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, angered officials and government supporters.

"The Venezuelan government should promptly adopt concrete measures to comply with an Inter-American Court order to protect Humberto Prado," the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, criticized Venezuelan authorities for condemning Prado's negative assessments of government efforts to put down the prison uprising by deploying hundreds of National Guard troops. The move triggered deadly gunbattles with rebellious inmates.

"Open hostility by high-level officials against human rights defenders is completely unacceptable," Vivanco said in the statement. "Instead of questioning the work of civil society organizations, the government should ensure that defenders can do their job without fear of reprisals."

Venezuelan Justice Minister Tarek El Aissami has accused Prado of provoking violence within the country's notoriously dangerous prisons.

Upon returning from a trip to Europe last year, Prado received an anonymous email including what appeared to be a document from the Attorney General's Office stating that he was under investigation for his alleged involvement in unspecified acts that could constitute "treason" and "incitement to commit crimes," Human Rights Watch said.

The group did not say where Prado went, and the activist did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Human Rights Watch said a group of unidentified people riding motorcycles went to Prado's house a week after he left the country and asked the doorman if he still lived there.

On another occasion following Prado's departure, a group of uniformed women, allegedly from the National Guard, asked if the activist's apartment was available for rent, the rights group said.

Human Rights Watch said Prado "interpreted these visits as threats, which led him to have his family leave Venezuela."

Last year, 476 people died and 967 were injured in prison violence, according to figures compiled by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.