The Miami Herald
Sat, Sept. 20, 2008

Rights groups decry monitors' ouster


Watchdog groups from 10 Latin American countries and various regionwide bodies on Friday repudiated the forced expulsions of two respected human rights monitors following a critical report of the country's human rights record.

In an open letter, the organizations said the Venezuelan government's justification of the move on grounds of ''sovereignty'' was incompatible with developments in international human rights law.

This ''has been a defense utilized by authoritarian governments to avoid supervision by international human rights bodies,'' the groups said.

The outcry came after José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, and deputy director Daniel Wilkinson were expelled from Caracas on Thursday night, after presenting a report that said President Hugo Chávez has systematically and deliberately weakened democratic institutions since coming to power almost 10 years ago.

The government accused both men of an unwarranted intervention in Venezuelan affairs and even of aiding and abetting an alleged plot to assassinate the president. They were escorted to the airport by armed men in military garb.

Chile's deputy foreign minister, Alberto Van Klaveren, called the expulsion ''absolutely disproportionate'' and said Chile would support Human Rights Watch in its demand for an explanation for the brusque action that occurred shortly before midnight Thursday when Vivanco and Wilkinson were intercepted at their Caracas hotel by a score of armed men, some in military camouflage uniforms.

''They wrestled with us to separate us and forcibly took our cellphones,'' Vivanco told The Miami Herald on Friday.

The BlackBerry devices were handed back, minus the batteries, and the two men were denied the right to contact their embassies or make any phone calls.

They were handed a letter informing them that they had to leave the country, then they were bundled into a car and driven to the international airport.

In a statement, the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry said that comments made by Vivanco while presenting the report had ``violated the constitution and the laws of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.''

It accused him of ``attacking the institutions of Venezuelan democracy [and] illegally interfering in the internal affairs of our country.''

But Eduardo Bertoni, who formerly kept track of freedom-of-speech issues for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said the government's justification was unacceptable.

''They expelled them for criticizing the government,'' Bertoni told The Miami Herald, ``and that is inadmissible under the American Convention on Human Rights.''

In a 230-page report, Human Rights Watch concluded, among other things, that the Chávez government had engaged in systematic political discrimination and shown ''open disregard'' for the principle of separation of powers.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro confirmed in statements to the press that the two men had been put on the first available plane out of the country.

He added that similar actions by ''any other foreigner, at the service of a foreign country -- in this case at the service of the government of the United States,'' would meet with the same response.

Information Minister Andrés Izarra accused Human Rights Watch of being an ``active tool in . . . efforts to destabilize the country.''

He said Vivanco and Wilkinson had been thrown out of the country ''in order to eliminate conspiratorial plans to assassinate'' Chávez.

Last week, the Chávez government claimed to have uncovered a plot by military and civilian conspirators -- including media bosses -- to murder the president and overthrow the government.

The revelation has been met with skepticism by opposition media, which the government has taken as proof of their involvement.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth called the expulsions ``further evidence of Venezuela's descent into intolerance.

''Chávez may have kicked out the messenger,'' Roth said in a statement, ``but he has only reinforced the message: Civil liberties in Venezuela are under attack.''