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The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) strongly condemns the actions of the Venezuelan National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL), in collusion with the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), that led to the arbitrary...

The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) strongly condemns the actions of the Venezuelan National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL), in collusion with the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), that led to the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of eight Twitter users between September and October of 2014. Recent journalistic investigations show that William Castillo, head of CONATEL, provided numerous intelligence reports to general Gustavo González-López, head of SEBIN and current minister of the interior, which facilitated the identification, location, and arrest of eight individuals who sent tweets critical of the Venezuelan government. Five of them are still being held in SEBIN’s infamous prison awaiting trial.

“These men and women were not renowned activists, politicians, or polemicists, they were just ordinary Venezuelans who dared to express their opinions in social media, and for that they became the target of the repressive apparatus of the Venezuelan government. They should all be released immediately, although there is little hope of this actually happening given that Venezuela has no judicial independence. The only hope for their release is unrelenting international pressure and public exposure,” said HRF president Thor Halvorssen. “Stories like this clearly expose the Orwellian nightmare that’s been developing in Venezuela for more than a decade now. There are countless examples: criminal indictments for wearing a Bart Simpson t-shirt criticizing Chávez; thetorture of students for participating in peaceful demonstrations; and, in this case, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment inside a cavernous dungeon for engaging in self expression by tweeting criticism of Nicolás Maduro’s regime,” said Halvorssen.

According to an independent investigation revealed last week, in June 2014, the head of CONATEL sent numerous intelligence reports to the head of SEBIN containing detailed information about eight Twitter accounts associated with Abraham Muñoz, Daniely Benítez, Inés González, Leonel Sánchez-Camero, Lessi Marcano, Ginette Marcano (Lessi Marcano’s niece), María Contreras, and Víctor Ugas. The reports listed specific information about websites visited, IP addresses, web traffic analytics, new followers per month, and the physical location of the servers. This information was then used by the Venezuelan prosecution service to indict some of the eight Twitterers with the crimes of “incitement to hatred,” “conspiracy,” “official defamation,” and “espionage,” among others. The tweets contained language that, in some cases, insulted and lampooned government officials, calling for civil disobedience. Before their arrest, several of the Twitterers had built up a base of support in the tens of thousands of followers.

According to the investigation and different sources, Víctor Ugas was arrested for tweeting a picture of deceased assemblyman Robert Serra at the morgue; Inés González was arrested for tweeting comments like “Robert Serra wasn’t a human being, he was a criminal that led colectivos of terror and gave weapons to children…,” and “how are you going to condemn the murder of a communist thug who distributed weapons to children on January 23?;” Lessi Marcano, who administered the account @hiipolita dedicated to fortune-telling, religious messages, tarot readings, and political commentary, was arrested for tweeting—a week before the murder of Serra—“there will be mourning in the national assembly;” Ginette Marcano and Daniely Benítez were arrested for allegedly being community managers for Lessi Marcano; and Leonel Sánchez-Camero was arrested for allegedly hacking the Twitter accounts associated with Jacqueline Farías, minister of communications, and Eduardo Lima, congressman (PSUV).

To date, five of the eight detainees remain in El Helicoide, SEBIN’s headquarters and the location where many former political prisoners—such as opposition leader Henrique Capriles and former governor Oswaldo Álvarez Paz—were held, and where former mayorDaniel Ceballos is currently imprisoned. The SEBIN has achieved international notorietyfor its dungeon prison cells (five stories underground) which lack natural sunlight and are equipped with a cement bed, no running water, and suffer from unusually cold temperatures.

“The vague and overly broad charges of ‘incitement to hatred’ and ‘official defamation’ used by Venezuela’s government against eight individuals for their Twitter activity are typical of the pattern of abuse by authoritarian regimes all over the world, fromSwaziland to China, to Saudi Arabia and Cuba, against law-abiding citizens that disagree with the government,” said Javier El-Hage, general counsel of HRF. “Tellingly, Venezuela’s regime denounced the American Convention of Human Rights three years ago, but they continue to systematically violate the right to freedom of expression under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Venezuela is a state party. The arbitrary imprisonment of these Twitter users is a wrongful act under international law, so the charges against them should be dropped,” said El-Hage.

The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies. We believe that all human beings are entitled to freedom of self-determination, freedom from tyranny, the rights to speak freely, to associate with those of like mind, and to leave and enter their countries. Individuals in a free society must be accorded equal treatment and due process under law, and must have the opportunity to participate in the governments of their countries; HRF’s ideals likewise find expression in the conviction that all human beings have the right to be free from arbitrary detainment or exile and from interference and coercion in matters of conscience. HRF does not support nor condone violence. HRF’s International Council includes human rights advocates George Ayittey, Vladimir Bukovsky, Palden Gyatso, Garry Kasparov, Mutabar Tadjibaeva, Elie Wiesel, and Harry Wu.

Contact: Jamie Hancock, (212) 246-8486, [email protected]