Detention of Venezuelan human rights activist and attorney inspires protest

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Human rights organizations in Venezuela on Wednesday demanded the release of a prominent attorney and activist whose detention last week has heightened concerns over the government’s use of repression against real and perceived adversaries.

The representatives of several rights groups expressed concern over Rocío San Miguel’s well-being and condemned her inability to access legal representation of her choice.

“The prolonged isolation and lack of communication to which the defender Rocío San Miguel and her family have been subjected represent forms of cruel and inhuman treatment, harmful to the psychological and moral freedom of the person,” Claudia Carrillo, coordinator of victims’ psychological care at the Venezuela-based organization Cofavic, said during a press conference in Caracas, the capital.

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San Miguel was detained Friday at the airport near Caracas while she and her daughter awaited a flight to Miami. Her arrest set off a wave of criticism inside and outside the South American country.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab on Wednesday reiterated the accusations against San Miguel he announced earlier in the week, telling reporters that the activist was allegedly linked to an alleged plot to kill President Nicolás Maduro and other officials and attack military units.

Saab said members of the military arrested in connection with the foiled plot revealed her alleged role to authorities. He claimed to have evidence but did not reveal any.

San Miguel, 57, is specialized in researching Venezuela’s shadowy, often corrupt, armed forces. She is the head of the non-governmental organization Control Ciudadano, which focuses on human rights, security and the armed forces.

Following San Miguel’s detention, authorities also took into custody her daughter, Miranda Díaz, ex-husband, Victor Díaz, two brothers and former partner.

Venezuela Activist Arrested

Sign reads from Spanish as “Release Rocio!,” referring to lawyer and activist Rocio San Miguel who was recently arrested, outside office of the UN Development Program in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Feb 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Authorities have not explicitly acknowledged the detention of Miranda and Victor Díaz. But Minnie Díaz, Victor’s sister, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that father and daughter have been released on conditions that they check in regularly with authorities, do not travel outside the country and do not speak to the media.

Minnie Díaz earlier told the AP that San Miguel and Miranda are dual citizens of Venezuela and Spain and that she hoped Spain’s consulate would intervene.

Saab said San Miguel and her former partner, Alejandro Jose Gonzales de Canales Plaza, had initial hearings Monday. She faces charges of treason, conspiracy and terrorism, while Gonzales’ charges include revealing state and military secrets and obstruction of justice.

One of San Miguel’s attorneys, Juan González, said he had been told she would be held at the Helicoide prison — the most infamous institution for political prisoners.

The groups who held Wednesday’s news conference were among more than 200 local non-governmental organizations that earlier this week demanded the release of San Miguel and her family, and urged the international community to condemn the actions against them.

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Carrillo said San Miguel’s detention is having an “intimidating effect” and seeks to “generate polarization” and mistrust among citizens.

A U.N.-backed panel investigating human rights violations in Venezuela in September reported that the government has intensified efforts to curtail democratic freedoms with use of threats, surveillance and harassment ahead of this year’s presidential election. The panel noted that Maduro’s government shifted tactics with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing its use of targeted repression against politicians, labor leaders, journalists, human rights defenders and other real or perceived opponents.

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

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has condemned the detentions and urged Maduro to follow through on his commitments. The office of human rights at the United Nations and the Canadian government have also expressed concern.

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“We urge her immediate release & respect for her right to legal defense,” the U.N. tweeted Tuesday.