Venezuela gets noticed


Cheers erupted as the protesters toppled the statue of former President Hugo Chávez, the metal cracking against concrete. The scenes, distributed around Venezuela on social media, showed a crowd smashing the sculpture on a curbside as others came to set a fire inside its shattered belly. But when the authorities rounded up suspects for the vandalism, they were not taken to an ordinary court. Instead, they were hauled off to a military base, where they faced the judges of a military tribunal this past week.

President Nicolás Maduro, beleaguered by a second month of protests against his rule, has prosecuted political rivals under terrorism laws and expanded his powers by emergency decrees. His backers on the Supreme Court have even tried to dissolve the national legislature, which is led by the political opposition. Now, the president is turning to military courts to tighten his grip further, prosecuting demonstrators and other civilians in tribunals that the government closely controls.

At least 120 people have been jailed by military courts since early April, when demonstrators began taking to the streets to call for new elections, according to Penal Forum, a legal group assisting those arrested. Another group monitoring cases, Provea, counted at least 90 people jailed by the military. Both groups contend that the country has never used the military courts against so many civilians this way outside of wartime.

“Military justice sows the greatest terror in our population,” said Juan Miguel Matheus, an opposition congressman in the state of Carabobo. He said at least 69 people there had been jailed by the military since early April. Those held include students, store owners, mechanics and farmers, rights groups say. An entire family was arraigned before a military tribunal in Caracas this past week and charged with inciting rebellion. In one case in the city of Valencia, two people were brought before military courts on suspicion of stealing legs of ham during a round of looting — then charged with rebellion as well, according to Penal Forum. “They are being treated like they are combatants,” said Alfredo Romero, the director of the legal group. “It’s taking civil jurisdiction and putting it in the hands of the military, like we are in a war.”

Many see another reason for the military crackdown against the protesters: The president’s power is declining within his own leftist party, especially among its law enforcers. Venezuela has witnessed large street mobilizations in the past, most notably in 2014, when hundreds were detained. But while protesters were jailed, tortured and killed that year, they were largely tried by civilian courts controlled by leftist judges and prosecutors. This year has been different. Luisa Ortega, the attorney general who oversaw the prosecutions in 2014, publicly broke with Mr. Maduro in March after the Supreme Court tried to dissolve the opposition-led legislature. The president backtracked soon afterward.

“They’re using military courts because the president is assured of the outcome there,” said Tamara Taraciuk, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It’s not a coincidence that the moment the government feels they don’t control the attorney general, they look elsewhere to see that they can lock up dissidents.”

The use of military courts to try civilian cases has long been shunned internationally. Nearly all countries, including Venezuela, are part of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a United Nations treaty that discourages the practice as unfair. The unrest, however, is the biggest challenge to the leftist government since protesters marched to the presidential palace in 2002, setting off a coup that briefly deposed Mr. Chávez, the leader of the political movement that Mr. Maduro inherited after Mr. Chávez died in 2013. This time, with hundreds of thousands of people pouring into the streets to demand new elections to replace Mr. Maduro, clashes between demonstrators and security forces have left at least 40 dead, hundreds injured and scores of businesses looted. Fueling the anger is the worst economic crisis in recent memory in Venezuela, where more than two years of low oil prices have led to shortages of food and medicine and skyrocketing street crime

Mr. Maduro said he had expanded the role of the armed forces in a “strategic civil-military plan to guarantee the country functions.” He warned that the opposition had “called for a coup d’état” and that the punishments would be tripled for such offenses. The president has since described the protests as acts of terrorism that would be treated legally as such. A call to the Venezuelan Information Ministry for comment was not returned. This month, Nestor Reverol, the interior minister, said on Twitter that the tribunals would be used. “Military courts will be in charge of all investigations that are necessary of these TERRORISTS hired by the right,” he wrote

If a coup d’etat is in the offing, better have a couple of pieces in advance of it. We note that the NYT has not returned the Duranty Pulitzer, which perhaps indicates which side the paper is on.

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