Human Rights Watch has published a new report titled “Punished for Protesting” which offers detailed descriptions of abuses carried out by Venezuelan authorities.
HRW found 45 cases where there was strong evidence of human rights abuses including “violations of the right to life; the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; the rights to bodily integrity, security and liberty; and due process rights.” The report adds, “members of the Attorney General’s Office and the judiciary who knew of, participated in, or otherwise tolerated abuses against protesters and detainees.”
One example given in detail as part of the report’s “illustrative cases” is that of Moisés Guánchez. Guánchez was not taking part in the protests, he was working. But his attempt to get home after his boss closed the restaurant early ended with him being beaten, shot at least six times with rubber bullets at close range, then forced to walk, jog and wait for medial attention. During his wait he was repeatedly threatened with murder and rape, had all of his possessions stolen and, finally, was framed for planning attacks on police. Here is the description of what happened form the HRW report:
At 8 a.m. on March 5, Moisés Guánchez, a 19-year-old student, went to his day job at a fast food restaurant in La Cascada mall, in the municipality of El Carrizal, Miranda state. Since early that morning, a demonstration had been taking place on the highway that passes in front of the mall. He said he began to hear shots as early as 10 a.m. Around 12:30 p.m., his boss decided to close the restaurant, and he and his co-workers began to clean up. When they went to leave around 2 p.m., they found that private security guards employed by the mall had locked its main entrance, locking several employees and customers inside the mall complex. By then, teargas had begun to waft into the mall, and Guánchez, who is asthmatic, made his way to the mall’s open-air parking lot, which was located between the mall and the street, and enclosed by a gate.
Approximately 40 other people were in the lot, he said, including six children. From there, he observed National Guard members firing teargas canisters towards protesters on the highway and people in apartment buildings throwing bottles down on the highway. Guánchez told Human Rights Watch that national guardsmen began launching teargas canisters and firing rubber bullets at people who were trapped in the parking lot. Then, approximately four official National Guard motorcycles, with 2 guardsmen on each, broke into the parking lot, firing rubber bullets as they drove towards the group. Guánchez said he and others started running towards the mall to seek refuge.
Guánchez found his path blocked by a motorcycle, turned, and began running in the other direction, towards a parking lot exit. As he ran, he said he heard a guardsman yell, “There! There! Shoot him!” The guardsman riding on the back of the motorcycle behind him fired five or six times in his direction, but none of the shots hit him. At that moment, Guánchez saw another motorcycle in front of him stop, while a guardsman on the back raised his rifle towards his face. He reflexively raised his arm to protect his face, and felt an impact on his arm, where he had been shot. Again Guánchez changed directions, and as he ran he heard several more shots fired. He felt several impacts on his buttocks, and fell to the pavement.
By this point, he said, between eight and ten National Guard motorcycles had entered the parking lot. Two guardsmen walked towards him and picked him up. A man with a video camera and a bullet proof vest that said “Operations Command” (Comando Operaciones) in white lettering was filming as guardsmen assaulted him, Guánchez said. Amateur photographs taken by a witness show Guánchez cornered against a gate by national guardsmen, while a man with a video camera in their company appears to be filming. Each national guardsman took hold of one of his arms and started punching him repeatedly in the ribs. (Guánchez and his mother said they were unaware whether investigators had recovered the video from the cameraman, whose face is clearly visible in the photographs.)
Then, a third guardsman approached Guánchez –who was offering no resistance–pointed his rifle at his genitals, and fired. Guánchez moved his leg defensively, causing the shot to strike him directly in the leg and graze his testicles. According to a forensic medical report, Guánchez had injuries produced by “multiple bullets [shot at] at close range.”
Guardsmen forced Guánchez–whose pants were soaked in blood and was experiencing severe pain from the several shots he had sustained–to walk across the parking lot and get on a motorcycle between two guardsmen. The guardsman sitting behind him pointed a handgun at his head and threatened to kill him if he moved.
When the guardsmen found the gate to the parking lot locked, they forced Guánchez to get down from the motorcycle and made him jog over to the highway, where he was made to wait. The pain from his wounds was extreme, he said.
A group of pro-government civilians on motorcycles were congregated on a bridge above where Guánchez was held, he said. The men yelled down at the guardsmen that they should let him bleed to death, and said they would kill him themselves if he did not die, and would run him over with their motorcycles. Guánchez said that one the guardsmen laughed. The presence of the men on motorcycles was corroborated by photographs shared with Human Rights Watch, which show men on motorcycles above where Guánchez was held, apparently yelling down at him.
After about 15 minutes, the guardsmen handcuffed Guánchez and loaded him onto a black pick-up truck with no license plates. During the ride, the guardsmen riding with him mocked Guánchez, saying he would never be able to have children, and called him a “fag” (marica). The guardsmen also said that if he bled to death on the way over, they were going to dump his body in a canal. The guardsmen threatened to rape him with a broomstick and send him to prison with rapists. They stole his money, two cell phones, his backpack, and a gold chain, all of which his mother later reported as stolen to the National Guard.
The guardsmen brought Guánchez to a hospital. Upon arriving, they did not allow hospital staff to bring a stretcher to carry him into the emergency room, forcing him to instead walk, despite the excruciating pain it caused. Guánchez collapsed upon entering the emergency room. When doctors asked guardsmen to help lift his body onto a stretcher, they refused.
When doctors asked guardsmen to remove Guánchez’s handcuffs, they at first claimed they had lost the key. It was only when a doctor threatened to have the handcuffs cut off that one of the guardsmen produced the key and unlocked Guánchez. The guardsmen would not leave the emergency room, despite repeated requests by the medical staff. When the doctors learned the guardsmen had not notified Guánchez’s family, one obtained his father’s number from him and contacted him.
He was given three blood transfusions and operated on immediately to remove five rubber bullets from his leg, which Guánchez’s mother later showed Human Rights Watch. Doctors also located rubber bullet wounds in his arm (from when Guánchez said he had protected his face) and his buttocks. Guánchez was also operated on for damage to one of his testicles, which a medical report shared with Human Rights Watch confirms. Photographs of Guánchez’s wounds and additional medical reports were also provided to Human Rights Watch.
That same day–according to Guánchez’s mother, who arrived at the hospital shortly after being notified by doctors–a National Guard colonel arrived at the hospital and asked the doctors for information on her son’s health. The colonel ordered two armed guardsmen to remain stationed in the hallway outside of Guánchez’s room. Guánchez’s mother said she and the medical staff found their presence very intimidating.
On March 7, a hearing was held in Guánchez’s hospital room. A prosecutor charged him with public incitement to commit crimes (instigación pública) and attacks undermining security on public roads (atentado contra la seguridad en la vía). The prosecution evidence was a police report that said Guánchez had a teargas mask in his backpack, and that they had found “in the place where he was detained” (en el lugar donde fue detenido) 19 Molotov cocktails, 12 miguelitos, and 30 meters of barbed wire in his backpack. (“Miguelitos” refer to small objects with protruding nails used to puncture the tires of vehicles or motorcycles.)
The judge, however, ruled there was no evidence to charge Guánchez with any crime, and that he was to be granted liberty. Guánchez’s family showed the ruling to Human Rights Watch. According to a medical report reviewed by Human Rights Watch, Guánchez was told he could not resume his studies nor work at least until April 14. On April 11, Guánchez had a second operation to remove fluid from his wounded testicle. His mother said he was in pain and remained in bed.
Remember, authorities from “Operational Command” videotaped this abuse as it happened. The Human Rights Watch report contains more incidents like this one, some involving tasers, helmets and even live ammunition used on unarmed students.