Chávez Vetoes Penal Reform due to Venezuelan Prison Crisis (updated)

Chavez vetoed a controversial penal code reform bill, saying that many of its provisions were imprecise and unconstitutional. Among other things, the reform would have outlawed threatening protests at politicians' homes.

Caracas, February 08, 2005—Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez vetoed a law to reform the country’s penal code, last weekend.  The law was initially passed by the National Assembly (AN) in December, 2004.  According to sources close to the President, Chávez vetoed the law “to put an end to the crisis in the prison system,” that has flared up over the past few weeks.

The proposed reform has sparked controversy both among the government’s critics, who accuse the pro-Chávez majority in the AN behind the reform of criminalizing dissent, and their supporters, who say the reform does not go far enough.  A press-release from the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) drew attention to what they described as disproportionately harsh punishment for those found guilty of defamation, and expressed “alarm” at provisions that they say “severely restrict free speech and press freedom.”

In a 14 page explanation, the President requested that the National Assembly modify the articles referring to intimidation of public officials, the diffusion of false information that might cause panic, the blocking of roads, and robbery. The document explains that with regard to the prohibition against the intimidation of public officials, that it represented an “excessive use of indeterminate juridical concepts” that resulted in an “imprecise and discretional” norm. Also, Chavez objected to the elimination of procedural rights in court cases.

But Paula Gurisco, a lawyer with the National Women’s Institute and a supporter of President Chávez, criticizes the reform of the penal code for a different reason.  “A reform will only retouch the articles,” argues Gurisco.  For a real change, “we have to write a new Penal Code that will include the gender vision articulated in the Constitution,” she says.

Criticisms of the reformed Penal Code aside, the reform increases the sentences for many crimes, which means that Venezuela’s recurrent prison crisis has government officials concerned that any rise in the prison population would only make matters worse.  According to a recent article in the Venezuelan daily El Universal, 11,300 prisoners out of population of 18,000 at 15 prisons around the country are currently on hunger strikes.  Smaller groups of prisoners at a further 15 prisons are also reported to be on hunger strikes.

The Chávez government placed prison and judicial reform high on their list of priorities when they came to power in 1998, a year in which 500 prisoners died in violent clashes.  But endemic corruption in the prison system has meant that reform has come to Venezuela’s prison only slowly; and to many family members of prisoners currently on hunger strikes, it seems not to have come at all.

Until prison conditions can be improved, officials are loath to increase the prison population.  According to penal code specialist Alberto Arteaga, “one of the effects [of the reform] would be a rapid increase in the prison population, which would dramatically aggravate the country’s prison crisis.”

National Assmebly to Participate Special Commission to Resolve Crisis

The president of Venezuela’s National Assembly (AN), Nicolás Maduro, who is of the governing party, the 5th Republic Movement (MVR), announced on Monday that the AN will participate in a high level commission to resolve the worsening prison crisis.  “We will take the necessary legislative measures to create a solution to this situation,” Maduro told reporters.

Deputies to the AN, Cecilia Flores and Iris Varela, also of the MVR, will join Minister of Justice and the Interior Jesse Chacón in the special commission.  Varela is vice-president of the AN’s Commission on Justice and the Interior, Human Rights, and Constitutional Guarantees.

According to Maduro, the AN has been closely following the prison crisis and in particular prisoners in 30 prisons that are currently on hunger strikes.  “The executive committee [of the AN] has met on several occasions with Minister Chacón, to whom we have expressed our support in finding a short-term solution to the conflict that has accumulated over so many years in Venezuela’s prisons,” said Maduro.