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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Luke Taylor

Repression in Venezuela intensifying ahead of elections, rights groups say

Protesters call for the release of the prominent lawyer Rocío San Miguel
Protesters call for the release of the prominent lawyer Rocío San Miguel. Photograph: Rayner Pena R/EPA

Human rights groups are calling for the Venezuelan government to halt a crackdown on civil society after it jailed a prominent lawyer and then banished a UN human rights office from Caracas for criticising her arrest.

The arrest of the 57-year-old lawyer and military expert Rocío San Miguel has shocked observers, who say Venezuela is entering a darker phase of state oppression intended to crush government opposition in the lead-up to elections expected later this year.

When the UN human rights office criticised San Miguel’s detention, the government ordered its staff to leave the country within 72 hours.

“The expulsion of the UN high commissioner and his office is the latest attempt from the government to isolate itself from international scrutiny on its human rights record,” said Valentina Ballesta, Amnesty International’s researcher for South America. “The international community must not give up on shining a spotlight on this issue.”

Rocío San Miguel
Rocío San Miguel was arrested on 9 February. Five members of her family were also detained. Photograph: Fernando Llano/AP

San Miguel was arrested at an airport outside Caracas on 9 February as she was about to fly to Miami on holiday with her daughter.

Her family were given no information of her whereabouts for two days until they were informed that she had been put on trial for allegedly plotting to kill the Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. Five members of her family, including two ex-partners, were also detained by police.

San Miguel’s family say she has not been allowed to appoint a lawyer to defend her against the allegations.

“Limiting the right to legal defence was already common practice in Venezuela,” says Gonzalo Himiob, a lawyer and a founding member of Foro Penal, an NGO that tracks political prisoners. “Now there is this new practice of completely isolating the detainees from their families and lawyers to impede any defence.”

The Venezuelan government has often used state institutions – particularly the courts and intelligence agencies – to silence critics since the country’s economic collapse accelerated in 2014.

Maduro and other senior Venezuelan officials have been accused by the UN human rights council of committing crimes against humanity, including torture, kidnapping and extrajudicial killings.

With elections on the horizon the government has begun using a more alarming strategy to throttle civic space, rights groups say.

As well as allegedly using trumped-up terrorism charges to jail critics, the state is reportedly also rounding up their friends and family members.

In one case a woman was tortured and given a 30-year sentence for simply sharing a taxi with someone accused of plotting against the government.

“The repression may have become more selective, but it is also growing more severe,” Himiob said.

Allegations of conspiracy were accompanied by an “intense and systematic” state-media campaign, according to Himiob.

The arrest of San Miguel caught experts by surprise. Her high profile along with her Spanish nationality and international connections were once thought sufficient to shield her from Maduro’s autocratic government.

San Miguel is also seen as a moderate political voice and is best known for her research exposing corruption in the Venezuelan army.

“No one will believe that Rocio should be involved in this rather crazy-looking coup plot,” said Phil Gunson, an analyst at International Crisis Group. “Clearly this is intended to send a message to civil society that no one is safe from these arbitrary arrests.”

Analysts say that Maduro is stepping up his assault on civil society to ensure victory in “free and fair” elections promised to the opposition in exchange for US sanctions relief.

Three aides to the opposition leader María Corina Machado were arrested in January on treason charges, while the government-aligned supreme court upheld a ban on Machado’s candidacy.

Venezuela’s congress is expected soon to rubber stamp a law regulating civil society groups that UN investigators say would be “a point of no return in the closure of the civic and democratic space in Venezuela”.

“The government is trying to tackle the last standing resistance,” Ballesta said.

Rights groups are calling on governments to criticise San Miguel’s arrest and the expulsion of the UN’s human rights office.

A White House spokesperson told reporters last week that the US was “deeply concerned” by the arrest of San Miguel.

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