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Two senior Human Rights Watch staff were expelled from Venezuela last week, just hours after presenting a report describing the deteriorating human rights situation under the government of President Hugo Chávez.

Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco and Americas deputy director Daniel Wilkinson were stopped at their Caracas hotel on 18 September after they presented their report, "A Decade under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela".

The two men were accused of anti-state activities. They were prevented from contacting anyone, including their embassies, their telephones were disabled and they were sent by plane to Sao Paulo, where they arrived the following day.

The 230-page report accuses the administration of controlling the judicial system, politically discriminating against the opposition, and limiting freedom of expression, from adding more restrictions on accessing public information to giving stiffer penalties for contempt and defamation.

"In its attempts to contain the political opposition and consolidate power the government of President Hugo Chávez has weakened the democratic institutions and human rights guarantees in Venezuela," reads the report.

"Chávez's expulsion of Human Rights Watch's team is further evidence of Venezuela's descent into intolerance," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Chávez may have kicked out the messenger, but he has only re-enforced the message - civil liberties in Venezuela are under attack."

In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said Vivanco had "violated the constitution and the laws" of Venezuela by entering the country on a tourist visa to do human rights work, and "illegally interfered in the country's internal affairs." It added that it believed Human Rights Watch was acting in concert with the U.S. government in a campaign of aggression against Venezuela.

Similarly, the Movement for Necessary Journalism (Movimiento Periodismo Necesario, MPN), a pro-government group that includes more than 500 journalists and media in Venezuela, "categorically rejected the report." MPN says Human Rights Watch has no right to intervene, especially as it is aligned to private groups in Venezuela and abroad that are interested in ridding the country of Chávez.

Human Rights Watch says it is an independent, non-governmental organisation and does not accept any government funds, directly or indirectly.

Eighteen press freedom groups in the region, including IFEX members the Institute for Press and Society (IPYS), Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), the Argentine Journalism Forum (FOPEA) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), strongly protested against the expulsion. In a joint statement, they said: "Regardless of the content of the report, we must protest against the very serious precedent that this measure sets against the free flow of information and opinions in Venezuela."

They add that the expulsion is a violation against freedom of expression protected by the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, to which Venezuela is a signatory, and by the Venezuelan constitution.

"Opinion is sharply divided as to whether President Hugo Chávez is a visionary democratic reformer or an authoritarian dictator," writes human rights news portal OneWorld UK in its Venezuela country guide. Despite widespread criticism of his government's record on human rights and political freedom, Chávez has launched various initiatives that accord with his belief of equality for all and that have received wide public support.

To read "A Decade under Chávez", see:

Also visit these links:
- Human Rights Watch on expulsion:
- Joint statement by IFEX members against expulsion (email): venezuela (@)
- Inter American Press Association condemns expulsion:
- State-run television VTV broadcast images of Vivanco's expulsion:
- OneWorld UK's Venezuela country guide:
- MPN:
- "The New York Times":
(24 September 2008)

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