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Venezuela orders UN human rights office to close, accusing it of anti-government activity

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s government on Thursday ordered the local United Nations office on human rights to suspend operations and gave its staff 72 hours to leave, accusing it of assisting coup plotters and terrorist groups.

Foreign Affairs Minister Yván Gil announced the decision at a news conference in Caracas, which came amid heightened concerns that the government is repressing real or perceived opponents in an election year. Nearly a week ago, Venezuela detained a prominent human rights attorney and members of her family, setting off a wave of criticism inside and outside the country.

Gil said the local technical advisory office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, authorized in 2019, was supposed “to improve, to optimize,” human rights. Instead, he said, it had become an “international sounding board to maintain a discourse against the Bolivarian government and against the Venezuelan people.”

The office had “become the private law firm of coup plotters and terrorist groups that permanently conspire against the country,” Gil said, though he did not show any evidence or point to a specific example of that alleged activity.

Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the U.N. rights office of the high commissioner, based in Geneva, Switzerland, said the agency regretted the decision and is evaluating next steps.

“We continue to engage with the authorities and other stakeholders,” Shamdasani said. “Our guiding principle has been and remains the promotion and protection of the human rights of the people of Venezuela.”

The agency on Tuesday had expressed “deep concern” over the detention of Rocio San Miguel, a prominent human rights attorney in Venezuela. In a tweet, the office urged “her immediate release” and respect for her right to legal defense.

San Miguel was taken into custody Friday at the airport near Caracas while she and her daughter awaited a flight to Miami. Authorities did not acknowledge her detention until Sunday, and as of Wednesday, her attorney had not been allowed to meet with her.

About an hour before Gil’s announcement, the U.N. agency called for the respect of “due process guarantees, including right to defense” in her case.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab earlier in the week said San Miguel was being held at the Helicoide prison, an infamous institution for political prisoners. She is facing charges of treason, conspiracy and terrorism.

San Miguel’s daughter, ex-husband, two brothers and former partner also were detained following her arrest. Of them, only her former partner, Alejandro Jose Gonzales de Canales Plaza, remains in custody. He is facing charges of revealing state and military secrets and obstruction of justice.

Gil told reporters that President Nicolás Maduro agreed to cooperate with the high commissioner in September 2019 to establish the local technical advisory office in Caracas to “show the world the advances in human rights in Venezuela.”

He said the office had 13 staff members as of Thursday.

Months before Maduro’s 2019 decision, the high commissioner at the time, Michelle Bachelet, had published a scathing report detailing widespread human rights abuses at the hands of Venezuelan government security forces.

The U.N. Human Rights Council had also voted to set up an independent fact-finding mission to look into allegations of killings, disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture in Venezuela.

The fact-finding mission has never been allowed to visit the country. But its investigations have documented, among other things, that the government intensified efforts to curtail democratic freedoms ahead of this year’s coming presidential election. The mission accused the government of using threats, surveillance and harassment against politicians, labor leaders, journalists, human rights defenders and other real or perceived opponents.

In addition to the U.N., 200 non-governmental organizations in Venezuela, the European Union, and the Canadian and United States governments have expressed concerns over the San Miguel’s detention.

San Miguel’s detention is part of the Venezuelan government’s policies of “criminalization and persecution of the work of promoting and defending human rights and closing civic space in Venezuela,” the Venezuelan organizations said in a statement Monday. Both are based on the idea that social activists and human rights defenders are “internal enemies” who participate in “alleged conspiracies and attempts at ‘assassinations,’” it said.

San Miguel’s detention happened more than three months after the U.S. government rolled back some economic sanctions against Venezuela following Maduro’s commitment to hold an election in the second half of 2024, lift bans preventing adversaries from holding office and release political prisoners. His promises are part of an agreement signed in the Caribbean island of Barbados between his representatives and those of a faction of the opposition.

Since it was signed, Maduro’s government has been testing its limits. It has blocked the candidacy of the winner of the opposition’s presidential primary and arrested numerous perceived or actual adversaries, including campaign staffers of the blocked candidate. It has also repeatedly accused members of the opposition of having links to various plots to kill Maduro and his inner circle between last May and January without showing any evidence.

The government also only released about 20 political prisoners. The Venezuela-based organization Foro Penal tallied 263 political prisoners in the South American country as of Thursday.

Human Rights Watch on Thursday condemned the government’s decision to suspend the activities of the U.N. office, describing its presence in Venezuela as “crucial.”

“Amid a new wave of repression, governments in the region should call for its reestablishment,” Juanita Goebertus, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, tweeted.


Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and videojournalist Derek Karikari in New York contributed to this report.


Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. AP

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