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Report: Venezuela continues trampling human rights

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez continues amassing power, controlling courts, hounding critics and muzzling the media, Human Rights Watch said in 133-page report released Tuesday.

“For years, President Chávez and his followers have been building a system in which the government has free rein to threaten and punish Venezuelans who interfere with their political agenda,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Today, that system is firmly entrenched, and the risks for judges, journalists, and rights defenders are greater than they’ve ever been under Chávez.”

The report, titled “Tightening the Grip,” comes as Chávez, 57, is hoping to win an additional six-year term in office. A poll released this week by Datanalisis has Chávez leading former Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles by 15 points in the Oct. 7 race.

Tuesday’s report highlights how the government has stacked the Supreme Court with political allies who openly reject “the principle of separation of powers,” and use the judiciary to attack opponents. Among the cases cited is that of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni who was arrested in 2009, on Chávez’s orders, after she freed a banker and government critic who had spent almost three years in prison awaiting trial. Afiuni’s arrest has had a powerful impact on other judges, who fear being prosecuted for their rulings, the report found.

Chávez has also marginalized the country’s human rights defenders by accusing them of using U.S. funding to undermine Venezuelan democracy. The U.S. backs civil society groups around the world, but the Venezuelan groups were acting independently, the report found. Even so, in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled that individuals or organizations that receive foreign funding could be prosecuted for treason. And the National Assembly has passed laws barring organizations that “defend political rights” or “monitor the performance of public bodies” from receiving international assistance.

The government did not immediately respond to Tuesday’s report, but in the past Chávez has said that his administration’s commitment to the nation’s poor and success in reducing the income gap is a sign of Venezuela’s human rights commitments.

When Human Rights Watch released its last Venezuela report in Caracas in 2008, Chávez responded by having the group’s representatives detained and expelled from the country.

The report also highlights steps taken to muzzle the media. In 2010, the National Assembly expanded existing media restrictions to include the internet. It also added new rules, including a prohibition on transmitting messages that “foment anxiety in the public,” and granted the national telecommunications agency more leeway in sanctioning media outlets and websites.

Venezuela’s oldest private television channel, RCTV , which was taken off the airwaves in 2007, has since been driven off cable TV, leaving Globovisión as the last openly critical television station. Globovisión was forced to pay a $2.1 million fine earlier this year for its coverage of the 2011 prison riots.

While private media have been hemmed in, the government now has six state-controlled television stations that all have a “strong pro-Chávez editorial line,” the report said. In addition, the government routinely requires private media to interrupt their programming to transmit presidential speeches and events celebrating government policies. On Tuesday, television channels were forced to broadcast images of Chávez driving tractors and promoting agriculture in his home state of Barinas. Also Tuesday, he also signed a document vowing to respect the results of the Oct. 7 elections.

Among the report’s recommendations is that Venezuela reform its Supreme Court, create an independent body to regulate the media and respect the authority of the Inter-American human rights system. Chávez and some regional allies have pushed for the dissolution of the Organization of American States’ human rights body.

“Unfortunately, given how President Chávez has reacted to similar recommendations in the past, it’s very unlikely that he will take steps to restore the checks on presidential power that he and his supporters have eliminated,” Vivanco said.

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