Venezuela’s Attorney General Mounts Legal Challenge to Controversial Penal Code

Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez asked Venezuela's Supreme Court to nullify almost the entirety of a recent controversial reform of the penal code. This reform stiffened punishment for many crimes and allowed the opposition to argue that the government is interested in stifling free speech and protest.

Caracas, Venezuela, November 23, 2005—Venezuela’s Attorney General, Isaias Rodríguez, filed an exhaustive challenge yesterday in the country’s Supreme Court, to a recent controversial reform of the country’s penal code. Opposition critics of the penal code reform, which the pro-Chavez legislature passed last March, charge that it smoothes the path for Venezuela to become a dictatorship.

Rodriguez had announced the move several months ago, but it took his office until this week to complete its analysis of the penal code reform. 25 of the 39 articles of the law that were reformed last March are to be challenged in the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court. When the law was first approved, last January, it was rejected by President Chavez for being too draconian in many parts. The National Assembly, though, made only minor modifications and passed a final version in March, which went into effect in April of this year. According to Venezuela’s constitution, the President cannot veto laws, as in the U.S., but only return them to the legislature once for modifications, which it is then free to make or ignore.

The penal code reform (Gazette 5,768) was strongly criticized both within Venezuela and by international human rights groups, which argued that the law would make it possible for the government to crack down on free speech, protest, and to violate various other civil rights. For example, the reform broadened prohibitions against the defamation of government officials, created the possibility of prosecuting protestors who threatened government officials, and eliminated due process for many crimes.

The Attorney General is challenging the reform on all of these accounts. Specifically, it is asking the court to declare unconstitutional paragraphs that deal with causing panic with false information (art. 297-A), false documentation (art. 319), blocking of traffic (art. 357), vandalism to public installations (art. 360), defamation (art. 442), insult (art. 444), robbery (art. 456 & 457), and disturbance of the peace (art. 506), among others.

One of the most controversial measures involves the defamation and insult of public officials, where the National Assembly slightly toughened punishments, extending maximum prison sentences from 30 to 48 months and introduced stiff monetary fines. Human Rights Watch, opposition leaders, and the U.S. State Department continue to present this aspect of the penal code reform as proof of Chavez’s intent to stifle free speech, even though none of its provisions was ever applied before or since the reform.

According to Rodriguez, the Supreme Court should nullify these articles because, “they infringe on principles of legality and the presumption of innocence.” Also, giving special protection from insult to public officials creates inequality and, “Establishes a privilege for some officials solely by virtue of being officials.”

One of Rodriguez’s strongest objections to the penal code reform involved the limitation of due process for those charged with terrorism, sabotage, homicide, rape, defamation, and robbery cannot enjoy normal due process and are not allowed to be punished by anything other than a prison sentence.