Amid the pandemic the world faces due to the spread of COVID-19, United Nations (U.N.) High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for the unconditional release of all political prisoners in Venezuela.
Bachelet reported more than 130 cases of alleged human rights violations against people imprisoned for disagreeing with the Nicolás Maduro regime.
“I reiterate my call for the unconditional release of all persons detained for political reasons,” Bachelet told the Maduro dictatorship. The first appeal came in her June 2019 report, after she visited various Venezuelan cities. The latest took place during the 43rd session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, in late February.
Representatives of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) visited three prisons in Venezuela, where they interviewed 28 people without the presence of military authorities. “My office was able to document that there are people who require an urgent response because of health reasons, legal delays, and failure to execute release orders, among others,” Bachelet said. Her team analyzed, among others, the reasons for the prisoners’ detention and their confinement conditions, and found violations of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s guidelines.
That call became more urgent at the end of March, following Bachelet’s official statement on the human rights situation amid the pandemic that spreads in the region and is likely to get worse. “It’s crucial to avoid the collapse of national health systems, considering the explosive impact that this could have in terms of death tolls, human suffering, and virus spread,” Bachelet said in a statement. “I urge more cooperation from Venezuelan authorities and reiterate the request for access to intelligence services’ detention centers.”
Organizations like Foro Penal, a Venezuelan nongovernmental organization dedicated to monitoring the prison population, challenge the OHCHR figures, saying that the Maduro dictatorship has “at least 328 political prisoners in the country: 208 civilians and 120 service members. More than 90 percent have not had the chance to defend themselves in court.” The organization urged Bachelet to be more forceful in her demand for release.
“It’s unacceptable that OHCHR representatives are here and that the situation is not pressed on every day […]. I understand that diplomacy prevails on many occasions; I really do. But this is not about diplomacy; this is about human beings who are being unfairly deprived of their freedom, and their families [suffer] every day,” Alfredo Romero, head of Foro Penal, told Voice of America in March.
In March 2019, the Maduro regime detained Roberto Marrero, chief of staff of Venezuelan Interim President Juan Guaidó, in an operation with heavily armed, hooded men, with the support of the Venezuelan police.
The regime accused Marrero of being part of a terrorist cell that was ready to attack electrical facilities, the subway, or judges. Marrero was able to send a message from his cell phone in which he describes how units of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service hid weapons in his yard to frame him.
The Maduro dictatorship has not yet responded to the OHCHR regarding the release of political prisoners, neither does it allow access to information on the existence of detainees infected with COVID-19.