Caracas Nine

The Caracas Nine campaign focuses on the plight of nine Venezuelans who spoke their minds and paid a price.

These nine men and women are from all walks of life—from a law student to a judge; from a military general to a journalist. Their stories bear witness to the deplorable state of human rights in Venezuela today, where only those who conform utterly to the demands of the regime are safe from persecution. The Caracas Nine include survivors of discrimination, censorship, intimidation, false arrest, imprisonment, and torture.

  • Francisco Usón
    Francisco Usón
  • Yon Goicoechea
    Yon Goicoechea
  • Alberto Federico Ravell
    Alberto Federico Ravell
  • Marta Colomina
    Marta Colomina
  • Gustavo Azócar Alcalá
    Gustavo Azócar Alcalá
  • Rubén González
    Rubén González
  • María Lourdes Afiuni
    María Lourdes Afiuni
  • Miguel Hernández Souquett
    Miguel Hernández Souquett

1. Francisco Usón
2. Yon Goicoechea
3. Alberto Federico Ravell
4. Marta Colomina
5. José Humberto Quintero
6. Gustavo Azócar Alcalá
7. Rubén González
8. María Lourdes Afiuni
9. Miguel Hernández Souquett

1. Francisco Usón

Francisco Usón is a retired Venezuelan army general and former cabinet minister in the government of President Hugo Chávez who was sentenced to five and a half years in a maximum-security prison for making a statement expressing concern for human rights. Usón’s case is the first in HRF’s Caracas Nine campaign, which advocates on behalf of nine Venezuelans who spoke out against their government and consequently faced human rights abuses.  

On April 16, 2004, Usón appeared on a Venezuelan television show. The program that day featured a discussion about punishment cells in a Venezuelan military base. On three separate occasions, enlisted soldiers were killed as a result of fires inside the cells; in one particular incident, at Fort Mara military base, there were allegations that the soldiers had been burned with a flamethrower. On the show, Usón explained that he was a military engineer by training and answered technical questions about how a flamethrower operates. Regarding the Fort Mara case, he stated, “this is very, very serious, if it ends up being true.” 
For his remark, Usón was detained by the National Guard on May 22, 2004, in Puerto Ordaz, state of Bolívar, Venezuela. The comment Usón made was broadcast on television and deemed “defamatory” of the armed forces of Venezuela.

HRF states in its legal report that it considers Usón’s arrest, trial, and imprisonment a violation of his human rights. Specifically, the state of Venezuela violated his right to be free from arbitrary detention, his right to freedom of expression, his right to equal treatment before the law, and his right to due process.

UPDATE: [December 25, 2007] Usón is freed on conditional release. 

2. Yon Goicoechea

Yon Goicoechea is a young Venezuelan, who, at great personal risk, became one of the key leaders and spokesmen for his country’s student movement. For his outspoken criticism of the government, he and his fellow protestors have been the victims of intimidation as well as verbal and physical assaults. Goicoechea’s case is the second in HRF’s Caracas Nine campaign.

Goicoechea and the student movement organized numerous peaceful rallies to protest the extension of presidential powers and the crackdown on civil liberties in Venezuela. They also compiled information on civil liberties violations and presented them in the form of petitions to the different branches of the government. The student protesters filled the streets of the country’s most important cities. Dozens of students were injured by the use of excessive force by state security officials.

Goicoechea’s leadership in the Venezuelan student movement was instrumental in President Hugo Chávez’s defeat in the 2007 constitutional referendum, through which Chávez aimed to reduce constitutional checks over the executive and extend his own presidential powers.

HRF’s letter to President Chávez asks the Venezuelan government to end the persecution of Goicoechea and expresses grave concern for the violence against student protestors at the hands of state security officials. The letter asks that Chávez assert his presidential power to order an immediate end to the police crackdown on the peaceful demonstrations. HRF's legal report states that Goicoechea is entitled to government protection of his right to assemble peacefully without facing threats, harassment, or unwarranted and excessive use of force by security personnel.

3. Alberto Federico Ravell

Alberto Federico Ravell is a Venezuelan journalist and the general director of Globovisión, the only remaining 24-hour news and information channel in Venezuela that is critical of the Venezuelan government. Ravell is the third case in HRF’s Caracas Nine campaign.

Under Ravell’s leadership, Globovisión has suffered numerous attacks against its equipment, employees, and directors. There have been more than 25 violent attacks against its journalists, cameramen, and technicians; equipment was vandalized 17 times. Two fragmentary hand grenades were launched at the Globovisión headquarters in Caracas. Globovisión offices in the city of Maracaibo were also attacked and damaged. Globovisión journalists received multiple death threats, and the government threatened to shut down the network.

Globovisión has been subjected to an increasingly hostile environment of verbal threats and physical violence directed against its staff. The Venezuelan government publicly promoted this hostile environment.

HRF's legal report establishes that the Venezuelan government used administrative proceedings to silence the media; intimidated directors and journalists at private media channels via judicial and criminal proceedings; engaged in “judicial censorship” via a subservient judicial system; and passed a Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television (December 7, 2004), which heavily curtailed freedom of expression.

UPDATE: [September 23, 2013] In August 2013 Globovisión was sold to a group of chavista investors loyal to President Maduro’s government. After the ownership change, the content of the network’s programming began to change: shows and presenters critical of the government were dropped from the channel. It now appears that the Globovisión, while not directly owned by the state, operates according to guidelines set by the government. 

4. Marta Colomina

Marta Colomina is a Venezuelan journalist and academic who has been the victim of intimidation, threats, and violence in retaliation for her work critical of the government. Colomina is the fourth case in HRF’s Caracas Nine campaign.

Colomina has worked for both state and privately owned media outlets and served as a professor and administrator for the past 40 years at one of Venezuela’s largest universities. She has been subjected to intimidation and threats for her outspoken criticism of the policies of the government of President Hugo Chávez. Colomina was one of the four female journalists who initially exposed the links between the Venezuelan government and the Colombian terrorist organization Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Attacks on Colomina have been both verbal and physical. The minister of defense called her an “undesirable foreigner,” and she was labeled a traitor on posters hung in Venezuela’s capital city, Caracas. In 2003, as she was driving to work, a group of masked men carrying automatic rifles intercepted her vehicle, blocked it, and threw a Molotov cocktail at her car. Fortunately, she was saved by a protective anti-munitions layer on her windshield.

HRF condemns these attacks against Colomina, as outlined in its legal report, and urges the Venezuelan authorities to protect Colomina and to identify, prosecute, and punish those who have threatened her life. 

5. José Humberto Quintero

José Humberto Quintero Aguilar is a National Guard lieutenant colonel and commander of the Anti-Extortion and Kidnapping Unit (GAES-Grupo Antiextorsión y Secuestro) in the state of Táchira, Venezuela. He was detained in January 2005 by the Venezuelan government for allegedly arresting Ricardo Gonzalez, popularly known as Rodrigo Granda, a leader of the terrorist organization Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Quintero is the fifth case in HRF’s Caracas Nine campaign.

On December 13, 2004, anonymous persons arrested Granda in Venezuela and took him across the border to deliver him to authorities in Colombia. A wanted criminal in Colombia, Granda was immediately arrested and imprisoned. The capture of Granda led to a diplomatic crisis between Venezuela and Colombia. President Hugo Chávez claimed that national sovereignty had been violated. On the morning of January 12, 2005, Quintero was arrested without a judicial warrant. He was taken to the headquarters of the Military Intelligence Division (DIM), where he remained incommunicado for seven days and was denied access to legal counsel. On his first night at DIM he was handcuffed, blindfolded, and taken by car to an undisclosed location. There he was reportedly beaten and tortured until he agreed to provide a video confession stating that he was responsible for Granda’s illegal arrest.

HRF's legal report finds that the evidence points to unmistakable violations of human rights, specifically the rights to due process under the law and to legal counsel, as well as the rights to be free from arbitrary detainment and torture. HRF considers that Quintero’s allegations of torture should have prompted a serious investigation and urged the Venezuelan authorities to investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators. 

6. Gustavo Azócar Alcalá

Gustavo Azócar is a journalist and university professor in the western state of Táchira, Venezuela. He has been the target of political persecution by members of the government due to his criticism of the regional and national governments and his profile as an opposition leader in Táchira. Azócar is the sixth case in HRF’s Caracas Nine campaign.

In December 2000, Táchira State Prosecutor General Ana Casanova opened a criminal investigation to determine whether advertising contracts between Lotería del Táchira (the state lottery) and the company Nuevo Perfil had been fulfilled. Azócar was the manager of the radio station where the advertisements were to be aired; he was in charge of certifying that they had, in fact, been broadcasted. Although Azócar never collected any payment for the ads, he was the focus of many inquiries of the public prosecutor’s office. In 2005, when the public prosecutor’s office determined that the contracts between Nuevo Perfil and Lotería del Táchira had in fact been fulfilled, it closed the initial investigation only to begin a new one into contracts between GEA Comunicaciones—a company Azócar owned—and Lotería.

After two and a half years of procedural delays, the public prosecutor’s office formally accused Azócar of corruption in the fulfillment of an advertising contract between his company and the state lottery. His trial began in May 2009, and he was imprisoned at the end of July 2009 for allegedly violating the terms of his parole. His trial was annulled in October 2009, yet he remained in prison.

HRF considers that the violation of multiple due process guarantees, including undue delays and disproportionate measures throughout his case, strongly suggest that Azócar has been investigated, tried, and imprisoned for political reasons. HRF's legal report finds overwhelming evidence indicating that the investigation, incarceration, and trial against Azócar were instigated to silence his independent voice. HRF has designated Azócar a prisoner of conscience of the Venezuelan government.

UPDATE: [March 26, 2010] Azócar has been convicted and sentenced to two years and six months in prison. He is serving his sentence on parole.

7. Rubén González

Rubén González is a Venezuelan union leader who has worked for CVG Ferrominera Orinoco C.A. (Ferrominera) for nearly 27 years. González was the secretary general of the Workers’ Union of CVG Ferrominera Orinoco C.A. (Sintraferrominera), the company’s largest union, when he was arrested for leading a strike to protest labor conditions. HRF has designated González a prisoner of conscience of the Venezuelan government. González is the seventh case in HRF’s Caracas Nine campaign.

On August 12, 2009, González led approximately 2,000 workers on a strike to protest the company’s failure to comply with a labor agreement signed on January 5, 2009, and ratified later that year. The protest ended two weeks later when Radwan Sabbagh, president of Ferrominera, signed an agreement with González to end the strike in exchange for the company’s commitment to fulfill its obligations. On September 24, 2009, González was detained on charges of unlawful assembly, public incitement to commit crimes, violation of the freedom to work, and violation of a security zone. Two days later, a judge ordered González to be placed under house arrest, where he remained until January 21, 2010, when a different judge ordered that he be sent to prison.

In its legal report HRF concludes, (1) that  González was accused, detained, imprisoned, and prosecuted exclusively for exercising his right to freely associate for labor purposes in Venezuela, and (2) that these actions violate both Venezuelan law and the standards of protection of the freedom of association and personal freedom according to international human rights law.

UPDATE: [March 3, 2011] Rubén González has been released on parole. 

8. María Lourdes Afiuni

María Lourdes Afiuni is a Venezuelan judge who was illegally arrested on December 10, 2009, just hours after she granted a detainee measures alternative to pre-trial detention. Afiuni is the eighth case in HRF’s Caracas Nine campaign.

On December 10, 2009, Afiuni granted bail to Eligio Cedeño, a Venezuelan banker accused of currency fraud who was imprisoned on February 8, 2007. Afiuni’s decision was based on the fact that Cedeño had been detained for almost three years without trial, thus exceeding the two-year pre-trial detention limit under Venezuelan law. Afiuni was also implementing a decision by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which had concluded months earlier that the detention of Cedeño was arbitrary. Approximately 20 minutes after Cedeño left the courthouse, around ten DISIP agents (today, known as, Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional “SEBIN,” Bolivarian National Intelligence Service in English) arrested Afiuni and her court’s bailiffs.

A day after her arrest, during a public event that was a mandatorily broadcast on all national television channels in Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez called Afiuni a “bandit,” instructed Attorney General Luisa Ortega and Supreme Court Chief Justice Luisa Estella Morales to keep her “in jail,” and requested the “maximum penalty: 30 years in prison” for her.

During her imprisonment at the women’s prison INOF, Judge Afiuni has suffered death threats, assassination attempts, and harassment by other inmates, as well as various health complications that were not treated with due diligence by the Venezuelan authorities.

In its legal report, HRF concludes that, with these actions, Venezuela violated: (1) the right to personal liberty; (2) the right to due process of law; (3) the right to human dignity of all persons deprived of liberty, including the right to health and medical attention, as well as the obligation to segregate the accused and convicted; (4) its obligation to diligently investigate allegations of rape made by Afiuni and prosecute and punish the perpetrators; and (5) the guarantee of stability and tenure of judges.

UPDATE: [June 14, 2013] After Judge Afiuni’s defense attorney publicly claimed that Afiuni was raped during her imprisonment, the seventeenth criminal court of Caracas sitting on her case decided to “terminate her house arrest and instead impose a restriction on traveling abroad; the obligation to appear in court every 15 days; and a prohibition from making any statements to national and international media outlets and social networks.”

9. Miguel Hernández Souquett

Miguel Hernández Souquett is a Venezuelan auto mechanic who has been persecuted since 2010 for wearing a t-shirt featuring Bart Simpson and the phrase “Hugo: I shit on your revolution” at a baseball game. Hernández is the ninth case in HRF’s Caracas Nine campaign.

On February 5, 2010, Hernández attended a Caribbean Series baseball game between Venezuela and Mexico at the Nueva Esparta Stadium. Hernández was wearing a short-sleeved yellow t-shirt with the phrase “Hugo, I shit on your revolution” printed in black capital letters along with an image of cartoon character Bart Simpson, depicted with his pants down and exposing his buttocks. Hernández was arrested at the stadium gates as he was leaving the facilities and was immediately taken to the offices of the Venezuelan National Guard. He was charged with the crime of “offending the heads of government,” punishable by six to 30 months in prison.

More than three years later, Hernández remains subject to criminal prosecution that could result in a prison sentence of up to two and a half years. Since February 2010, Hernández has been required to appear monthly in court as a pre-trial measure alternative to imprisonment.

Through its legal report, HRF establishes that, with its actions, the State of Venezuela violated: (1) Hernández’s right to freely express opinions and ideas, even when these are offensive, shocking, or disturbing; (2) the general prohibition against the criminalization of expressions, especially those directed at public officials; (3) the prohibition against the criminalization of subjective opinions or value judgments; (4) the prohibition against the restriction of freedom of expression through the application of desacato laws; and (5) Hernandez’s right to freely disseminate his ideas or opinions through the means of his choosing, in order to communicate them to the greatest possible number of people.