Venezuela Accuses US of Interfering in Internal Legal Proceedings

Venezuela’s embassy in the US and the Attorney General’s office lamented the State Department’s decision to pass judgment on the court case against the directors of the NGO Sumate, which received U.S. government funds for the presidential recall referendum last August 2004.

Caracas, Venezuela, July 11, 2005—Venezuela’s embassy in Washington, D.C., released a communiqué this weekend, responding to US criticism of a court case against Venezuelan NGO Súmate.  In a separate statement, Venezuelan Attorney General Isaías Rodriguez also released a statement criticizing both the State Department and Human Rights Watch’s position on the Súmate trial.  The position of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and that of the State Department were suspiciously similar, noted the Attorney General.

Last Thursday, district court Judge Norma Sandoval ruled that a case against four members of Súmate on charges of “conspiracy” would go to court, though no date was set.  State prosecutor Luisa Ortega Díaz has accused Súmate leaders of violating article 132 of Venezuela’s Penal Code, “conspiracy against the republican form of the nation.”  The charge carries a maximum possible sentence of a 26 years.

The conspiracy charge stems from US$31,000 Súmate received from the U.S. government funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which state prosecutors allege they used for political activity which, according to Ortega, is a violation of article 132 of the Penal Code.

The political activity for which Súmate is accused of using NED funds is the recall effort against Chávez, which culminated last August 15th with a nationwide referendum on the President’s mandate.  Chávez won with nearly 60% of the vote.

In response to Judge Sandoval’s decision to send the case to trial, acting spokesman for the US Department of State Tom Casey released a statement expressing the U.S. government’s “disappointment” with the decision, saying the charges against Súmate are “without merit.”  “These judicial actions are a transparent part of a Venezuelan government campaign designed to intimidate members of civil society for exercising their democratic rights,” said Casey.

On Saturday, Venezuela’s embassy in the in US responded, expressing its own disappointment at the State Department’s decision to pass “judgment on the merits of a legal proceeding underway in the Venezuelan judicial system.”  “Venezuela’s democratically-elected government enjoys a separation of powers, as does that of the United States,” continues the communiqué.  “Venezuela’s judicial branch of government is one of the primary democratic institutions that serve to guarantee the civil and political rights of our citizens. When governments, such as that the United States, choose to pre-determine the merits of pending legal proceedings in another country, whose authorities are democratically elected, it serves to do no more and no less than undermine the institutions of democracy,” warned the Embassy statement.

Venezuela’s Attorney General Isaías Rodriguez also issued a statement over the weekend, describing the Casey statement as a “grave interference in Venezuela’s judicial process.”  Rodriguez advised human rights groups rushing to make declarations on the Súmate case to turn their gaze towards the recent decision of a US court to condemn US journalist Judith Miller to four months in prison for refusing to reveal a source.

“Where are Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco, the Department of State, Reporters Without Borders?” asked Rodriguez rhetorically?  “Where are the condemnations of [the Miller trial], which violates liberty of expression and the right to information?”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) in particular has a history of controversial positions on Venezuela since President Hugo Chávez’ election in 1998.  Americas Director for Latin America & the Caribbean José Miguel Vivanco has been repeatedly criticized by Venezuelan officials who accuse him of favoring the Venezuelan opposition.

While HRW has not issued a statement condemning the Judith Miller case in the US, they were quick to condemn the Venezuelan state for “persecuting political opponents” in a statement released just hours after a Judge ruled that Súmate would go to trial on conspiracy charges.  “The court has given the government a green light to persecute its opponents,” Vivanco is quoted as saying in the HRW statement.  “Prosecuting people for treason when they engage in legitimate electoral activities is utterly absurd.”

Venezuelan Attorney General Isaías Rodriguez responded, accusing the HRW statement not only of being disproportionate, but of being in “frank coincidence with the White House.”  According to Rodriguez, this coincidence reveals that “this pseudo human rights organization has no independence or autonomy of decision-making whatsoever.”

Human Rights Watch, and José Miguel Vivanco in particular, are always ready to defend State Department interests, since “their statements and announcements rarely attack the many, many violations committed by the US,” who Rodriguez described as the world’s worst enemy of human rights.