Venezuelan Attorney General Comes Under Fire After Controversial Press Conference

Attorney General Luisa Ortega has been accused of exercising excessive leniency in prosecuting those arrested during violent opposition protests.

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Attorney General Luisa Ortega's leadership of the state prosecution has come under criticism since her press conference on Wednesday morning. (Archives)
Attorney General Luisa Ortega's leadership of the state prosecution has come under criticism since her press conference on Wednesday morning. (Archives)
By Rachael Boothroyd Rojas
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Caracas, May 25th 2017 (venezuelanalysis.com) - Venezuela’s Attorney General Luisa Ortega has been accused of acting with excessive leniency towards violent protesters arrested during anti-government unrest these past seven weeks, in the wake of a controversial press conference Wednesday morning.  

Speaking on the severity of the protests to journalists, Ortega called on both sides of Venezuela’s political divide to exercise “responsibility” in a bid to to avoid an “unbridled spiral of political violence and repression". She also provided an update on the state prosecution’s work to guarantee the judicial process over the past two months.  

Nonetheless, her comments were immediately met with harsh criticism from the Ministry of Defense, the Interior Ministry and even from former Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez, who suggested that she had politicized the role of Attorney General.  

According to Ortega, 55 people have lost their lives and 1000 had been injured since the protests began at the beginning of April, when the rightwing opposition called its supporters onto the streets to mobilize against what they described as a violation of Venezuela’s balance of powers.  

Amongst the dead are 52 civilians as well as 3 members of the security forces, while 721 civilians and 229 security force officials make up the ranks of the injured, said Ortega. She also added that 346 private and public buildings had been looted or burned during the protests, hitting out at those responsible for making the problems of ordinary Venezuelans more acute at a time of economic difficulty.  

“This destruction… will contribute to shortages,” she affirmed. 

In what has been dubbed one of her most controversial statements in the press conference, Ortega asserted that the opposition protester, Juan Pernalete, who died April 27, was killed by a tear gas canister allegedly fired at close range from a member of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB).  

The reported findings contradict an earlier claim made by the government that the student had died after being shot by a fellow protester using a captive bolt pistol, as appeared to be shown in a video circulated by state officials. Initial autopsy results also released by the state prosecution originally dismissed the hypothesis that Pernalete died from a tear gas grenade. 

Over the past several weeks, the causes of the more than the 50 deaths to date have been a source of contention between the government and opposition, with the latter taking to social media in the immediate aftermath of each fatality to declare government “repression” responsible. The government has consistently hit back at the accusations with counter-charges, often accompanied by independent video footage to bolster its case. 

But Ortega said that the heated public debate over the deaths was obstructing the state prosecution’s attempts to carry out objective investigations.  

“I want to exhort all political actors to avoid making hypotheses over the motives behind the crimes being carried out, without the state prosecution or other auxiliary organizations who are capacitating for this such as the CICPC, having officially done so,” she commented.  

The Attorney General also appeared to take aim at the opposition for encouraging the violent protests in spite of the mounting death count. Less than a week ago, two Afro-Venezuelan men were set alight and almost lynched by opposition supporters for being alleged "Chavistas". Ortega accused certain sectors of the population of using “extreme political violence, to annihilate those who think differently". 

“This cannot be the way forward. The demonstrations must be peaceful, that is a right… But when you start to carry out violent actions, you lose that right,” she stated.

Nonetheless, Ortega also targeted the government in many of her critiques. In particular she chastised security forces for the excessive use of force in dispersing violent protests, and suggested that not all security personnel had received appropriate riot-control training. 

To date, 19 security force officials have been charged by the state prosecution for crimes ranging from homicide and the misuse of a firearm, to carrying out unjust arrests, confirmed the Attorney General.  

In addition, Ortega revealed that the body had opened up 16 cases into the existence of armed civilian groups that had played a part in the unrest, and called on security officials to stop “irregular armed groups promoting confrontation, whichever political party they support.”

In another blow directed at the government, Ortega also hit out at seven cases in which military tribunals had been used to try civilians as a violation of the constitution, and revealed that the state prosecution had officially requested a transfer in two of those instances.  

The practice of using military courts to prosecute civilians has been defended by the government, which says that those on trial have carried out attacks on military personnel or institutions, and consequently can be tried according to military law. 

But the Attorney General has also been accused of acting with leniency towards violent protesters in the wake of the press conference, in which she revealed that “only 284” of the 2664 people indicted for crimes such as homicide, looting, grievous bodily arm, robbery, and arson, remained behind bars. 

“[This] confrontation… will not be solved by putting people in jail,” she said. 

The numbers appear to suggest that the majority of those charged with violent crimes have since been released on bail, or even been set free without trial. 

The statements provoked sharp criticism from Interior Minister Nestor Reverol, who accused the state prosecution of having failed to “guarantee the correct application of justice” through its inaction.

Making reference to an arson attack on a local rural worker’s house in Merida state by alleged opposition protesters, the interior minister said the state prosecution had disregarded police investigations and ordered the release of those responsible. He also accused the attorney general of having made public “pre-judgements” in relation to the actions of armed guard personnel before an official verdict is handed down.

“We are fully convinced and certain that the truth will prevail at the corresponding courts,” he stated, in what appeared to be a veiled allusion to Ortega’s comments on Pernalete’s death. 

The interior minister’s stance was backed in a Ministry of Defense statement Thursday, which criticized Ortega’s comments on the student as premature and damaging for the morale of the armed forces. 

In the public communique, the Ministry of Defense highlighted the professional conduct of the national guard, in spite of the “irrational attacks carried out against seven military unit headquarters, which included the use of firearms,” but which “received such a professional response from our soldiers that no injuries or fatalities were sustained by the attackers”. 

“It’s worth noting that these acts which have been made invisible by the media have not been duly investigated by the state prosecution,” continues the statement. 

However, some of the sharpest criticism of Ortega came from former attorney general and friend Isaias Rodriguez, who suggested that the attorney general may have been led on by conservative interests within the public prosecution. 

Speaking in a televised interview on state TV, Rodriguez said that his own failure to dismiss approximately 150 district attorneys who backed the 2002 coup against former President Hugo Chavez when he was attorney general may have led to the current situation. 

“Those people have not disappeared, they have possibly multiplied,” he remarked.

“There are two very different internal currents, one which walks on egg shells, which is very afraid, and one which is totally against the revolutionary process with a totally conservative view of the law,” he said. 

Rodriguez, who stated he was a friend of Ortega, said that he thought the attorney general had overstepped the mark by assuming political positions with respect to government initiatives such as the National Constituent Assembly, called by President Nicolas Maduro on May Day, and a later rescinded Supreme Court decision to temporarily assume National Assembly functions in early April. 

He said that she should have submitted a constitutional interpretation request to the Supreme Court on the issues as opposed to speak out in the media. He also alleged that Ortega's actions caused a rift in the state prosecution, and had led to the resignation of the vice-attorney general approximately 26 days ago.

“Somebody is giving her [Ortega] bad advice,” he concluded. 

Ortega has long been considered a supporter of the Chavista government, but has increasingly adopted a critical stance of the Maduro administration over the past two months. At the beginning of April, she came out in public against the Supreme Court decision to temporarily assume National Assembly functions, rejecting the ruling as unconstitutional. 

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