Report Helped Free Prisoners

Caracas (CNN)- On Venezuela’s national Independence Day, rival demonstrations kicked off in the capital city Caracas, fueled by a new UN report describing political detentions and thousands of extrajudicial killings in the country. The report is credited with causing the release of 22 prisoners.

In the middle-class streets of Eastern Caracas, protesters gathered in large numbers at the call of opposition leader Juan Guaido. Their slogan: “No more torture.”

“There are no euphemisms that exist to characterize this regime more than ‘dictatorship’,” Guaido told reporters that day, citing the scathing report’s findings.

Meanwhile, as if in another world, embattled president Nicolas Maduro presided over a colorful military parade, where supporters shouted patriotic slogans as tanks rolled before them — an unusual sight even for the highly militarized country.

UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who oversaw the report, they said, had simply been following a script written by Washington.

The OHCHR report

Issued one day earlier, the 16-page report has renewed longstanding criticisms of the embattled Maduro regime. It was created by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), a group Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza has repeatedly criticized as “biased.”

The report vividly described a state that’s failing to deliver basic necessities to its people, including the right to food, medical care and freedom of speech.

Diseases that had once been eradicated from Venezuela are re-emerging, it said, and laid the blame at Maduro’s feet for allowing hunger to run rampant. “The Government has not demonstrated that it has used all resources at its disposal to ensure […] the right to food,” it said, noting that public food aid is unequally distributed to favor government supporters.

Venezuela released 22 prisoners, including high-profile judge Maria Afiuni and journalist Braulio Jatar, on Thursday, according to the UN.

They were released on the same day the UN published a report by its human rights chief Michele Bachelet detailing alleged rights abuses in the country.

Ms Bachelet had separately asked President Nicolás Maduro to release the prisoners, her spokesperson said.

Venezuela said that Ms Bachelet’s report was biased.

The 16-page document highlighted the arbitrary arrest, ill-treatment and torture of government critics. It also accused the state of removing numerous opponents by extrajudicial killings.

The UN said the prisoner releases may mark a new beginning for the Maduro government on human rights issues, but many were sceptical.

Venezuela remains gripped by a long-running and highly polarised crisis. Pro-government celebrations took place for independence day on Friday, while supporters of opposition leader Juan Guaidó rallied in the capital, Caracas.

Mr Guaidó called for citizens to march on the headquarters of secret services to protest against the brutal killing of a detained naval officer last month, but few joined the demonstration.

Who has been released?

Ms Afiuni, the newly-freed judge, told news site La Patilla that she was surprised by her release and looked forward to rebuilding her life after nine years in detention.

She was detained in 2010, when the country was ruled by President Hugo Chavez and his opposition considered her to be a major political prisoner.

Chávez objected to her releasing a businessman who was accused of corruption. She insisted he had been detained for too long without trial. Part of her time in detention was under house arrest after she claimed she was raped in prison. In March 2019, a court sentenced her to five years.

Mr Jatar was jailed in 2016, after reporting on a protest against President Maduro on Margarita Island. He was later accused of money-laundering. On Twitter on Friday, he said he had only been granted partial freedom, as he has been told to stay in his home state and report to authorities once a fortnight.

Twenty students were also among those said to have been freed on Thursday, and 62 prisoners were released last month.

Last week, a Venezuelan navy captain died in custody, amid allegations that he had been tortured. Rafael Acosta, 49, was arrested over an alleged plot to assassinate President Nicolás Maduro.

Earlier this week, a Venezuelan Navy captain died while in government custody, prompting the arrest of two military officers for murder. His wife has accused counterintelligence officers of torturing him — an accusation that OHCHR’s findings support: The report described arbitrary detention as a “principal means” of social control for the Maduro administration, and offered evidence of systematic torture for political detainees.

Based on a sample group of 135 people, the organization found that detained men and women were subjected to torture or “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” including “electric shocks, suffocation with plastic bags, water boardings, beatings, sexual violence, water and food deprivation, stress positions and exposure to extreme temperatures.”

In interviews, women told the organization that threats of rape, forced nudity and inappropriate touching were among the tactics used to humiliate prisoners and extract confessions.