Venezuela Expels Two Rights Activists

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 20, 2008

BOGOTA, Colombia, Sept. 19 -- Armed agents in Venezuela detained and deported two officials from Human Rights Watch just hours after the New York-based group issued a report critical of the country's socialist government, the activists said Friday.

José Miguel Vivanco, a Chilean citizen who is the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, and Daniel Wilkinson, a U.S. citizen and the group's deputy director for the Americas, were detained in the hallway of their hotel in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas about 10:45 p.m. Thursday. After agents forcibly took their cellphones, Wilkinson said, they were driven to the airport and put on a commercial flight to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The group's 230-page report said President Hugo Chávez's populist government is intolerant of criticism, meddles with the judiciary and intimidates opponents.

"This is pretty clear evidence that our report was right on target," Wilkinson said by phone from Brazil. "The report describes how this government treats criticism as subversion and conspiracy against the government. It attacks and discredits with no basis, and this reflects the climate of intolerance."

The Foreign Affairs Ministry in Caracas said in a statement that Human Rights Watch had violated the constitution "by attacking the institutions of the Venezuelan democracy and illegally meddling in our country's domestic affairs."

Officials also accused the group of carrying out orders from the Bush administration, which the Venezuelan government says wants to oust Chávez. The National Assembly issued a statement calling the group's report "a flagrant violation of our sovereignty."

Human Rights Watch frequently issues reports critical of the rights situation in neighboring Colombia. President Álvaro Uribe, an ally of the Bush administration, has accused Vivanco of being biased toward Marxist rebel groups trying to topple that government.

Eduardo Bertoni, former director of the office of freedom of expression at the Organization of American States, said other Latin American governments should denounce the expulsions. "I have no recollection of a democratic government having reacted this way in recent times and under similar circumstances to a critical report that exercises freedom of expression," Bertoni said.

Wilkinson said that by the time he and Vivanco arrived at their hotel, agents had already entered their rooms and packed their bags.

The agents, numbering 15 to 20, wrested cellphones from the two activists and would not permit them to make calls to reporters. The activists were taken down a service elevator, forced into a car and driven to the airport in a caravan that included motorcycles and flashing lights.

A flight to Sao Paulo had been sitting on the tarmac, awaiting the last two passengers, Vivanco and Wilkinson. Wilkinson said the passengers were clearly irked.

"I think these people thought we were friends of the government," he said, "getting special treatment."

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