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By Angus Berwick and Sarah Kinosian
SAN JOSE DE GUANIPA, Venezuela, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Francisco Belisario, a Venezuelan mayor, retired general and member of the ruling Socialist party, had enough. His loudest local critic had accused him of bungling the response to the coronavirus outbreak and other big problems.
In August, he wrote a state prosecutor and requested an "exhaustive investigation" of his nemesis, Giovanni Urbaneja, a former lawmaker who had become a gadfly to the mayor and other Socialist officeholders. Urbaneja, Belisario wrote in a letter reviewed by Reuters, was conducting a "ferocious smear campaign" on Facebook and elsewhere.
Urbaneja not only defamed him and President Nicolas Maduro, the mayor wrote. He violated Venezuela's Law Against Hate. The law, passed in 2017 but rarely used before this year, criminalizes actions that "incite hatred" against a person or group.
Charge Urbaneja with hate crimes, the mayor implored the prosecutor.
Days later, several dozen masked officers raided Urbaneja's home and took him at gunpoint for "a chat," according to the police report of his arrest and Urbaneja's wife. Urbaneja remains jailed, awaiting formal charges and a trial.
The mayor, in a text message to Reuters, confirmed writing the letter seeking hate-law charges against Urbaneja. He defended the move, saying his foe's critique was unfair because the local coronavirus response is managed by the national health system, not the mayor's office.
It was an increasingly common maneuver: In a review of more than 40 recent hate-law arrests, Reuters found that in each case, authorities intervened against Venezuelans who had criticized Maduro, other ruling party officials or their allies.
Despite its growing use by prosecutors, the hate law is considered unconstitutional and illegitimate by many Venezuelan legal scholars consulted by Reuters. Not only does the law violate the right to free expression, they argue, it was also illegally enacted – drafted and rubber-stamped by a parallel legislature that Maduro created at the time to circumvent the opposition-controlled assembly.
The law played an important role in a nationwide election this month, Maduro's opponents say, by cowing critics who had spoken out about the government in the runup to the vote. The election, widely considered a sham by the opposition, human rights groups and most Western democracies, finally gave control of the assembly, the last part of the national government not aligned with Maduro, to his allies.
Maduro is wielding the force of the state in a widening range of ways to tighten his grip on power in the impoverished South American country, now in its eighth year of economic crisis.
To suppress dissent in poor neighborhoods, his government deploys special police, some of whom are convicted criminals, to conduct lethal raids and intimidate citizens. To appease enfeebled security forces, police and troops are often allowed to loot, extort and commit violent crimes.
Maduro himself has been indicted by the United States for narcoterrorism and other alleged crimes.
Now, with little effective opposition to challenge the hate legislation, and most of the courts controlled by judges also loyal to Maduro, the law could be an even more formidable tool against dissent.
"A law like this, in the hands of a judicial power without independence, lends itself to all sorts of persecution," said Alberto Arteaga, a criminal law specialist at the Central University of Venezuela. "The criminal justice system is being used as a weapon."
Tarek Saab, the government's chief prosecutor, is one of the architects of the hate law. In a brief telephone interview, he rejected claims that the act is being used for partisan purposes. He told Reuters that the legislation is an important instrument for defusing unrest.
"The voices of violence, terrorism and crime have been completely disarmed," he said. Saab declined to discuss individual cases reviewed by Reuters.
Venezuela's Information Ministry, responsible for communications with Maduro and other senior officials, didn't respond to email and telephone requests for further comment. Spokespeople at the Justice Ministry didn't respond to Reuters' queries.
This account of the crackdowns on Urbaneja and others reviewed by Reuters is based on previously undisclosed court records and interviews with detainees, their families and their attorneys. Their cases show how the sweeping but little-understood law is being used with increasing success to jail or cow those still daring to speak out against Venezuela's government.
One hate detainee was a university professor who went on Facebook to blame the collapse of the oil industry on Maduro's government. After his arrest, agents circulated a mug shot of the academic with his alleged weapon – a smartphone.
The arrests share similarities.
Most targets have been authors of posts on social media, chat rooms and text-message services, many of them criticizing the government's coronavirus response. In most of the 43 cases examined by Reuters, police or intelligence agents seized suspects on false premises, claiming they wanted to discuss unrelated issues.
And lawyers, spouses and relatives of those arrested typically said they went days or weeks unable to contact detainees, with little or no documentation from police or prosecutors. "It was anguish," said Lesnee Martinez, Urbaneja's wife, who waited two months before she was allowed to visit him in jail.
The crackdown is low-tech.
Targets are identified not by tracking software or other technology, but by loyalists and government technicians who point out disagreeable social media posts or text messages to prosecutors. Still, the effort is quashing discussion online and in messaging platforms that until recently were safe venues for Maduro critics.
In addition to laws used widely to allege "conspiracy" and "disorder" by government opponents, the hate legislation is proving to be an effective weapon against critics, not least because of harsh penalties for those convicted. It provides for prison terms of up to 20 years, longer than the 18-year sentence for some murder convictions.
But most cases don't ever reach trial, Reuters found.
Instead, defendants spend indefinite periods, often months, in pre-trial detention. They receive little information about their case from prosecutors and struggle to build a defense because lawyers are kept in the dark, too.
Releases appear arbitrary.
In a move the government said was meant to "promote democratic debate," Maduro in August pardoned over 100 people, many of them opposition activists charged with conspiracy, hate and other crimes. But the government at the time made clear that those freed could go right back to jail if they were deemed again to be committing an offense.
At least five of the 100-plus freed had been arrested under the hate law, Reuters determined. Three of the released hate suspects told Reuters that officials sought silence in exchange for their freedom.
Other suspects report similar treatment.
Luis Araya, a physician in the central state of Lara, said police detained him last April after he changed his profile photo on WhatsApp, the messaging platform, to include a black ribbon and a comment, in jest, that he was "rehearsing" for Maduro's death.
A judge freed him the next day, but warned him against publishing "messages against Maduro." His discharge document, reviewed by Reuters, orders him to check in monthly until his case goes to trial. Court officials didn't respond to Reuters requests to discuss Araya's case.
The arbitrary nature of arrests and releases, government opponents say, makes the law especially useful in silencing opponents. "It has generated self-censorship," said Marianela Balbi, director of Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, a press and free-speech advocacy group in Caracas, Venezuela's capital. "The intention is clear: Don't challenge public officials."
"BRING ORDER TO THIS"
The law has its origins in deadly protests that rocked Venezuela in 2017.
That March, as Maduro sought to cement control amid a worsening economic meltdown, the Supreme Court, stacked with presidential appointees, ruled that the opposition-controlled National Assembly was "in contempt" of the government. The court said it would assume the role of the legislature.
Protests erupted across the country. Demonstrations continued through August, when Maduro created a new body, the Constituent Assembly, to supplant the old legislature. At least 125 people died in clashes between protestors and security forces.
That October, Maduro appeared on state television with a group of cabinet members. He asked them to find ways to curb criticism on social networks. Such posts, he said, fuelled the unrest. "Bring order to this," Maduro ordered.
Ministers and other senior officials convened to address his demand. Among them was Saab, the chief prosecutor.
Saab had assumed the position weeks before when his predecessor, Luisa Ortega, broke with Maduro over the creation of the new assembly. A former public defender, Saab, 57 years old, is widely described by opponents as one of Maduro's lead henchmen.
He was one of 13 Maduro officials sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury that year for "the undermining of democracy" and waging "rampant violence" against protestors. Saab has called the sanctions "a badge of honor."
"Venezuela's peace is guaranteed," Saab said in a speech upon taking the prosecutor's position.
Right away, Saab conducted a purge of the country's prosecutors and stripped authority from those who stayed. He fired as many as 300 officials considered disloyal and shut units focused on corruption and human rights abuses, seven former prosecutors told Reuters.
"Everything was centralized," said one former prosecutor. "All instructions came from him."
In November, Maduro personally submitted a draft of the Law Against Hate for Peaceful Coexistence to the new legislature. After a debate of less than two hours, the Constituent Assembly passed it with a unanimous show of hands. Legislators applauded and waved flags, shouting "long live the homeland!"
At a news conference the following day, Saab called upon Venezuelans to denounce violators. "Remember, now there is a very clear law in Venezuela that allows us to prosecute," he said.
The law is vague, opponents objected, banning conduct such as "promoting national hate" without clearly defining it. Its six pages and 25 articles of text are mostly a tract on peace, tolerance, democracy and other values it ostensibly aims to protect. The legislation doesn't specify what actions, statements, or other behavior constitute hatred.
As a result, pro-Maduro prosecutors and judges have room to allege hate as they see fit. "It's a legal justification to do what they want," Ortega, the former chief prosecutor, told Reuters. Ortega left Venezuela after resigning and now lives in Colombia.
In Saab's first two years on the job, his office pressed few charges using the law. Espacio Publico, an activist group that tracks the law's implementation, reported just four arrests for inciting hatred in 2019.
With the law's rollout, however, the government increasingly asked teams in the Information Ministry and at the state telecommunications regulator to scan Twitter and Facebook for critical comments, according to six people familiar with those efforts.
This year, the country's decrepit health system came under greater strain. For years, doctors and hospital administrators have angered the government by criticizing a lack of basic infrastructure and supplies – from latex gloves to running water to disinfectant. Outrage over coronavirus preparedness spurred more intense criticism.
Even before the virus was known to be infecting South America, doctors cautioned that Venezuela's testing capacity is scant, its health data unreliable.
Their warnings, epidemiologists say, were justified: Venezuela has since reported what appear to be unrealistically low infection figures. The country, with roughly 30 million people, has confirmed 107,177 COVID-19 cases and 949 deaths, a fraction the rate registered in neighboring Colombia and across Latin America.
Maduro pushed back. After opposition legislators in March said the government was ill prepared for coronavirus, the president in a speech said they were seeking to "torture Venezuelan minds." He accused them of "manipulating" the pandemic for political purposes.
Within days, prosecutors ramped up use of the law.
On March 21, National Police officers arrived at the home of Darvinson Rojas, a freelance journalist. The day before, Rojas had challenged the government's coronavirus statistics on Twitter, citing additional COVID-19 cases that had been reported by local authorities but left out of the national count.
The officers, Rojas said, told him there was a coronavirus case in his building and that he needed to accompany them for a test at a nearby base. Instead, officers jailed him and interrogated him about his tweets.
At a court hearing two days later, a prosecutor charged Rojas with inciting hatred and spreading "false information," according to Rojas and his attorney, Saul Blanco. Blanco told Reuters the court didn't let him read the case file and he wasn't allowed to visit Rojas in jail.
After 12 days in a cell, a court released Rojas pending further investigation. The court barred him from leaving the country and told him to limit his reporting to conveying government statistics. Officials from the court didn't respond to requests for comment.
He's too frightened to report much on coronavirus now, Rojas told Reuters. "I've left the subject alone," he said.
"HATE AMONG VENEZUELANS"
Giovanni Urbaneja had long irritated Belisario, the mayor of San Jose de Guanipa, a small city in the eastern state of Anzoategui. Once a staunch Socialist, Urbaneja served as a state legislator when Venezuela was governed by the late Hugo Chavez, Maduro's mentor and predecessor.
After Chavez died and Venezuela's economy imploded, Urbaneja became disillusioned. With his wife, an attorney, he set up a foundation to provide legal assistance to victims of human rights abuses. He used the platform to speak out against Maduro and other ruling party officials.
In a letter to Reuters from jail, Urbaneja, 54, said mismanagement and embezzlement had destroyed the local economy. Once a booming oil town, it is now the site of abandoned drilling rigs, shuttered stores and homes darkened by blackouts that sometimes last days.
Urbaneja didn't cite evidence for his accusations in the letter to Reuters or in the public statements that triggered the mayor's demand for hate-law charges.
Belisario, 70, previously commanded Venezuela's National Guard. He was elected mayor in late 2017. At first, Urbaneja said he supported the new mayor, believing his military experience would help him stomp out local corruption. But soon, Urbaneja found fault.
In a Facebook post in December 2018, Urbaneja called Belisario a "traitor," alleging the mayor was letting local police rob and extort citizens. The mayor, in an official statement a few weeks later, denied the allegations. He accused Urbaneja of belonging to an "international conspiracy" to topple Maduro.
Last year, Urbaneja was invited by a private local radio station to discuss the public health system. On air, he said Belisario had failed to address a recent malaria outbreak. Minutes later, a local councilman and ally of Belisario burst into the studio and punched Urbaneja repeatedly, yelling that he was tired of the criticism.
Urbaneja, who lost consciousness in the beating, reported the assault to the office of Jairo Gil, the state prosecutor. Gil, who is the prosecutor now pursuing the hate-law case against Urbaneja, didn't respond to questions from Reuters about the attack or the current investigation of his comments about the mayor.
Jose Nassar, the radio host, confirmed details of the assault to a local newspaper. The alleged assailant, Ruben Herrera, was never charged. Neither Nassar nor Herrera responded to requests to discuss the incident.
The mayor, on another radio station shortly afterward, denied any involvement. "If this man's dead body appears around here one morning," he said of Urbaneja, "it won't have anything to do with me." In his text message to Reuters, Belisario said he never ordered any physical attack against Urbaneja.
Tensions escalated anew with coronavirus.
In a series of Facebook posts, Urbaneja accused Belisario and other government officials of misusing public health funds. "COVID-19 is their great business," he wrote on August 9. The comments prompted Belisario's request for the hate-law investigation.
In his letter to Gil, the state prosecutor, the mayor said Urbaneja's posts were particularly worrisome at a time when Maduro's government is subject to intense international and domestic opposition. "The peace of the republic is seriously threatened," he wrote, by people promoting "violence, chaos, anarchy" and "hate among Venezuelans."
Previously undisclosed court documents reviewed by Reuters show that after receiving the mayor's request, Gil promptly ordered police to review Urbaneja's social media accounts. Investigators then sent Gil a report with snapshots of Urbaneja's posts. The posts, they wrote, "were against the nation's leaders."
On August 20, the documents show, Gil signed the order for Urbaneja's arrest. That evening, municipal police, guns drawn, raided Urbaneja's home. Martinez, his wife, held their one-year-old daughter as the officers hauled him away, she told Reuters.
Ever since, Urbaneja has been detained at a police base just a few blocks from Mayor Belisario's office. He hasn't been charged and has had only one court hearing so far, at which a judge authorized prosecutors to continue investigating.
The detention, legal experts say, violates a law stipulating that suspects can only be held for 45 days without being formally charged with a crime.
In a handwritten letter to his lawyer, Adrian Moreno, Urbaneja said guards were keeping him "totally isolated." To keep him from becoming a bad influence, he wrote, guards prevent him from speaking with other inmates.
Urbaneja blames his arrest on "desperation among officials cornered by corruption," he told Reuters in a separate letter. "They are trying to silence my voice."
(Additional reporting by María Ramírez in Puerto Ordaz and Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal. Editing by Paulo Prada.)
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