Human Rights Watch attacks 'abuse of power' in Venezuela

Hugo Chavez out campaigning on 14 July Hugo Chavez is seeking a third presidential term in elections in October

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The abuse of power by the Venezuelan government under President Hugo Chavez has increased over the past four years, according to Human Rights Watch.

Legislation limiting free speech and the removal of institutional safeguards give the government free rein to censor and intimidate critics, the group says.

In 2008, Venezuela expelled HRW representatives, accusing them of interfering in the country's affairs.

This latest report comes in the midst of Venezuela's election campaign.

Contacted by the BBC, the Venezuelan government did not have an immediate response, with an official in the information ministry saying it had not seen the report.

In 2008, HRW detailed its view of how President Chavez's government had "squandered a historic opportunity to shore up the country's democratic institutions and strengthen the protection of human rights in Venezuela".

Its latest report, entitled Tightening the Grip: Concentration and Abuse of Power in Chavez's Venezuela, argues that the human rights situation in the country has become even more precarious.

It focuses on the judiciary, the media and human rights defenders, drawing comparisons with the situation in the country four years ago.

Analysis

Many of the cases mentioned in the report made headlines in their own right and readers will find little that has not already been said about President Chavez's handling of human rights issues.

The government's contempt for Human Rights Watch is no secret either. Two senior HRW figures were expelled in 2008 following the publication of a report on human rights under the current government. At the time, one pro-Chavez website said HRW displayed a "clear and obvious bias in favour of the opposition".

The rights group has been monitoring and evaluating successive governments in Venezuela for many years, regardless of their political affiliation.

But the release of this report less then three months before Venezuela's presidential elections could fuel accusations that HRW is taking sides in what is an extremely politically polarised country.

"The accumulation of power in the executive, the removal of institutional safeguards and the erosion of rights guarantees have given the Chavez government free rein to intimidate, censor and prosecute Venezuelans who criticise the president or thwart his political agenda," the report says.

Political control continues over the judiciary, with the Supreme Court packed with the president's supporters, according to HRW.

It cites the case of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni as the most disturbing example of the lack of judicial independence.

In 2009, Judge Afiuni ordered the release of a Venezuelan businessman and government critic accused of breaking currency controls. He had been held for nearly three years without trial, exceeding legal limits.

She was arrested shortly after President Chavez publicly criticised her ruling and demanded she be jailed for at least 30 years.

Judge Afiuni has been under house arrest since 2011.

The report acknowledges that sharp criticism of the government is common in newspapers and on other broadcast outlets such as opposition TV channel Globovision.

But it argues that the fear of government reprisals has made self-censorship a serious problem.

The government frequently accuses private media companies of using their power to try to undermine the democratic authorities.

In October, Venezuelans go to the polls, with Mr Chavez seeking a third term as president.

His main challenger is Henrique Capriles.

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