Venezuelan security forces should immediately stop arbitrarily detaining and forcibly disappearing people, no matter how long the disappearance, Human Rights Watch said today. International pressure and investigations into these abuses are key to pressuring authorities to end this practice.
On March 18, 2020, Tomeu Vadell Recalde, a CITGO Petroleum Corporation executive arbitrarily detained by the Nicolás Maduro government, called his family. The brief call, in which he did not say where he was being held, was his first contact with his family since intelligence agents took him away 42 days earlier. His lawyer has been unable to speak with him and neither the lawyer nor Vadell’s family have been able to confirm his whereabouts.
“It’s bad enough Venezuelan security forces have arbitrarily detained thousands of people, but they have also resorted to enforced disappearances – a perverse and globally prohibited crime in all circumstances – by deliberately hiding the whereabouts of people taken into custody,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “When this happens, the disappeared person is defenseless and the family faces levels of uncertainty and suffering that are inhuman and abusive.”
Officers from the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) detained Vadell, a dual Venezuelan-United States citizen, with five other CITGO executives in November 2017, hours after they landed in Caracas from the US for a meeting convened by Venezuelan authorities.
They were accused of signing a deal that was unfavorable for the Venezuelan state owned company PDVSA, of which CITGO is a subsidiary, and charged with willful embezzlement, money laundering and criminal association. The deal, however, was never signed, and Vadell was not involved in any negotiations around it, his lawyer told Human Rights Watch.
After spending two years in detention at DGCIM headquarters in Caracas, a judge ordered Vadell’s transfer to house arrest on December 9, 2019, but intelligence agents moved him to an unknown location on February 5, 2020, in an apparent retaliation after US President Donald Trump hosted the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó during his State of the Union in Washington, DC.
His lawyer only saw the order reversing the house arrest on February 19, when a judge instructed Vadell to be held in custody at the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services (SEBIN) headquarters in Caracas, a facility called El Helicoide.
On February 19, when Vadell and the other executives’ trial was scheduled to start, none were brought to the courthouse, and the trial was postponed. It has since been postponed two more times. Their preliminary hearing, prior to being charged, was delayed 16 times.
Vadell’s family fears for his health, given that he suffers heart and kidney problems and hypertension. These health preconditions put him at further risk at a time when coronavirus is spreading through Venezuela. There are 91 confirmed coronavirus cases in Venezuela as of March 25, including at least 4 potential cases in El Helicoide, amid a collapsing health system and unreliable official data.
The enforced disappearance of Vadell is not an isolated case, but rather part of a pattern by Venezuelan authorities in recent years. The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances found there is “a pattern of short-term enforced disappearances of political opponents or persons perceived as such, and their relatives” in Venezuela.
Vadell’s case is currently under consideration by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, as well as the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. They should urgently call on Venezuelan authorities to immediately release Vadell, Human Rights Watch said.
In an upcoming report, the Robert Francis Kennedy (RFK) Human Rights and Foro Penal, a Venezuelan group that connects human rights activists and pro bono criminal lawyers, say they have recorded 200 cases of short-term disappearances in 2018 and 524 in 2019.
The victims were detained by security forces for an average of five to eight days without anyone being informed of their whereabouts, many of them were tortured in detention, and members of the military generally remained disappeared for more days than civilians, the organizations found.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported in July 2019 that there have been 135 cases of people arbitrarily deprived of their liberty between 2014 and 2019 in Venezuela, some of which included short-term enforced disappearances.
Other cases that follow a similar pattern to Vadell’s involve political opponents. Roberto Marrero, a member of the Voluntad Popular opposition party, was arbitrarily detained by SEBIN on March 21, 2019 around 2 a.m. He did not have contact with his family or lawyers for 52 days after being detained. Marrero was accused of conspiracy, money laundering, association to commit a crime, and concealment of weapons. Marrero’s wife told Human Rights Watch her husband has been held in isolation since February 13, 2020. She said she is worried about the impact on his health with the spread of coronavirus, as Marrero suffers from asthma and high blood pressure.
Similarly, Gilber Caro, a National Assembly opposition congressman, was detained and forcibly disappeared in April 2019 by SEBIN. His whereabouts were unknown for over a month. He was released in June, but detained again on December 20. His whereabouts were once again unknown for a month, until January 20, when he was allowed a visit from a family member and his lawyer. Caro is being prosecuted for terrorism.
In September 2019, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to create an independent fact-finding mission to investigate serious human rights violations in Venezuela, including enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions in the country since 2014. The mission is scheduled to present its findings in September 2020, which could contribute to a preliminary examination of Venezuela that the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court is undertaking.
“In a country where there is no judicial independence, victims’ only hope for accountability is abroad,” Vivanco said. “It is therefore critical that the UN fact-finding mission report includes a thorough analysis of this pattern of short-term enforced disappearances in Venezuela and looks into individual responsibility at the highest levels.”