South America Newsletter May 2020

This month’s newsletter includes good news regarding the release on bail of a Venezuelan journalist, an urgent action for Colombia,  two regarding Venezuela  and a petition regarding the response to Covid-19. The Covid-19 pandemic and its effect on human rights is discussed in relation to several countries. In Colombia, the killings of human rights defenders and social leaders is on the rise, while the displacement of indigenous peoples and the lack of basic services for them is a major concern. There are also reports on indigenous people in Brazil, the effects of a cap on public expenditure and allegations that the Brazilian President is interfering in the Marielle Franco case. In Venezuela, attacks on opposition members are reported plus news about an addition to the Individuals at Risk portfolio. We report on prison riots in Peru and the findings of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights regarding the arbitrary detention and rape of a transgender woman. We  also report on developments in Ecuador, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia.

COLOMBIA

Amnesty International has issued an  Urgent Action   asking for protection for the human rights defender Jani Silva. On 17 April, Jani Silva heard 6 gunshots at less than 30 metres from her residence in Putumayo (South West), Colombia. On 22 April, she heard again three gun shots at less than 50 meters from her residence and noise from the movement of people and a motorcycle around her house. These two incidents occurred after a confidential source provided information to the Inter-Church Commission for Truth and Peace in late March about an ongoing plan to kill Jani Silva. We are urging the Ministry of Interior to provide appropriate protection for her.

Colombia has reported 5,949 cases of coronavirus and 269 deaths,   a very low proportion of its 46 million people. By taking confinement measures early, the outbreak has been contained at a low level, at least for the moment. However, the first cases of infection among indigenous communities have been identified, which is a major concern as it is believed indigenous communities are particularly at risk.

In a  press release  Amnesty International calls for the authorities to ‘urgently take appropriate measures to guarantee the rights of Indigenous Peoples, including their rights to health, water and food’.  While indigenous communities have followed the strict lockdown measures imposed from 25 March, rural indigenous communities in the departments of Casanare, Vichada and Meta informed Amnesty International that they have received no support from government authorities.  Unable to access their sources of food, they face starvation. The level of risk is also a concern for indigenous peoples living in settlements on the outskirts of towns and cities, as they have no way of growing their food and survive by working in informal jobs, which they are currently unable to do. Many of these communities do not have access to clean water or hygiene products, making personal cleanliness to prevent COVID-19 infection impossible.

The UN Verification Mission in Colombia  reported   that it had received 56 complaints of the killing of social leaders and human rights defenders between 1 January and 24 March, of which 4 had been verified. ‘Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities continue to be affected by pervasive violence, including attacks, mass displacements, confinement and recruitment of children, in several departments, in particular Cauca, Chocó, Nariño and Antioquia.’

23 April Amnesty International adds, ‘Since President Iván Duque declared a national quarantine on March 24, at least 14 people who defend human rights and social leaders have been killed, 3 of them while they complied with the quarantine in their homes. Additionally, the State protection protocols for human rights defenders have been reduced. Amnesty International has received information that the National Protection Unit (UNP) has reduced the number of escorts of at least two defenders and ceased their night patrols. Both defenders fear attacks from armed groups that have threatened them because of their work in defence of human rights.’

Fighting between three armed groups, the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Gaitanista Self-Defence Groups (AGC) and FARC dissidents, triggered most of the 139,000 conflict displacements recorded in 2019. ‘The figure is a small decrease from the 145,000 recorded in 2018, but a sign that insecurity remains high,’ according to the  Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre . 393 people were forcibly displaced in Chocó between 1 and 15 April and another 969 people remained in forced confinement due to clashes between these armed groups.

ARGENTINA

Argentina  has reported 4,003 cases of coronavirus and 197 deaths,    a very low proportion of its 44 million people.  By locking down the country on 20 March, Argentina has limited its spread and the government has extended its confinement measures to 10 May, excluding towns of fewer than 500,000 people where the decision is left to provincial authorities.

Amnesty International   has called on the government to extend Emergency Family Income support to the migrant population. 73% of the migrant population has no medical cover.

CHILE

The Guardian has reported   an outcry over an attempt by 14 government senators to allow former Chilean military agents convicted of serious human rights violations under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet to benefit from a bill intended to release some 1,300 low-risk prisoners from overcrowded prisons to serve out their sentences securely under house arrest.

VENEZUELA

At our request, a new Venezuela case has been added to AIUK’s Individuals at Risk portfolio.  He is Ruben Gonzalez, a trade unionist, who was arrested in November 2018, shortly after participating in a protest against government policies. He was tried by a military court, with no reliable evidence against him, and sentenced to five years and nine months in prison.  He suffers from renal failure and hypertension.  We circulated an Urgent Action about him in February.  Many thanks to the seven groups who have so far volunteered to work on his case.  If any other groups would like to do so, please email Graham at graham.minter@amnesty.org.uk 

Attacks against opposition members continue to take place.  On 2 April, the Special Action Forces (FAES) of the National Police detained Maury Carrero, a local council worker, and Demóstenes Quijada, advisor to Venezuelan National Assembly President Juan Guaidó. At least 10 other individuals connected to National Assembly opposition representatives and staff have been detained in different circumstances in recent months.  Our Urgent Action, in which you can call for an immediate halt to the policy of repression against opposition members, is still active here. Any letters should be addressed to the Venezuelan Ambassador in London as there is still no postal service in or with Venezuela.

We had some good news on 2 April when Darvinson Rojas, the Venezuelan journalist detained  for reporting on COVID-19, was released on bail pending a criminal investigation. After spending 12 days in detention, Darvinson was charged with ‘advocacy of hatred’ and ‘instigation to commit crimes’.   Amnesty considers these charges to be politically motivated to silence his reporting on the pandemic in Venezuela and is demanding that the case against him be closed. You can still participate in the Urgent Action here.

A group of five UN Special Rapporteurs have expressed alarm that increasing threats, attacks and charges against journalists, health workers and others in Venezuela could deter those working to safeguard human rights.

Al Jazeera have reported that Venezuela’s government is struggling to handle a large influx of migrants who have returned home from Colombia and Ecuador after losing their jobs amid social distancing measures as a result of COVID-19.

PERU

Nine inmates at a prison in Lima have been killed in a riot that broke out after two prisoners died from Covid-19. Sixty guards, five police officers and two inmates were injured.  According to the BBC,        there has been a wave of prison unrest linked to fears among inmates over the spread of the virus after more than 600 prisoners were found to be infected. Thirteen inmates have died of Covid-19, according to Peru’s prison authorities.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has found Peru responsible for the arbitrary detention and rape of a transgender woman in  2008 in a landmark case marking the first time it has ruled on a complaint of torture against a member of the LGBT+ community.

ECUADOR

On 16 April, one month after a state of emergency was declared due to the pandemic, President Lenin Moreno presented two urgent bills to the National Assembly containing a series of austerity measures.  Amnesty has expressed concern that the measures could lead to further social instability and stressed that, even in times of crisis, government authorities have the obligation to guarantee the rights to health, social security, food and other social rights to all people without discrimination, adding that this obligation must be at the centre of future negotiations on external debt and fiscal policy.  More information here.

Human Rights Watch has released the findings   from its research into the grave violations by security forces and the serious violence by some demonstrators during last October’s protests.  It has called on the government, despite the limitations during the coronavirus crisis, to pursue investigations and penalties for security force violations and protester violence to prevent a repeat of such violations.

BOLIVIA

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that a decree issued by the Bolivian government to respond to the COVID-19 emergency includes an overly broad provision that authorities could use to prosecute those who criticise government policies.  The decree includes a provision that individuals who incite non-compliance with it or misinform or cause uncertainty to the population will be subject to criminal charges for crimes against public health.  According to HRW, top Bolivian government officials have expressly mentioned political opponents as possible targets of prosecution under the decree.

BRAZIL

An Amnesty International news article  dated 6 April reports that land seizures and COVID-19 are the twin threats to Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples. Across Brazil, many Indigenous peoples have gone into voluntary isolation, barricading access roads to protect their villages from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two health providers at Brazil’s Special Secretariat of Indigenous Health (SESAI) describe a lack of protective equipment and hand sanitizer among SESAI’s health workers, as well as general staff shortages. The dire situation prompted the Coalition of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil–APIB to   demand that the government implement an Emergency Action Plan.

On 29 April 2020 two UN human rights experts   said, “The COVID-19 outbreak has magnified the adverse impacts of a 2016 constitutional amendment that capped public expenditure in Brazil for 20 years. The effects are now dramatically visible in the current crisis”.

The experts noted that, for instance, only 10 percent of Brazilian municipalities have intensive care beds and the Unified Health System does not even have half the number of hospital beds recommended by the World Health Organization. “Government funding cutbacks have violated international human rights standards, including in education, housing, food, water and sanitation and gender equality,” they said.

Amnesty International Brazil have issued a  petition in Portuguese    addressed  to  the President of the Republic and the Ministry of Health demanding that “the  response to COVID-19 must be inclusive and leave no one behind.

Due to the petition being in Portuguese the following explanation of the steps to take may be helpful:

  1. Fill in the boxes ‘Digite seu nome’ (Christian name), ‘Digite seu sobrenome’ (Surname), ‘Digite seu e-mail’ (email address).
  2. Go to ‘Selecione seu pais’ (select your country) and scroll down to ‘Reino Unido’ (United Kingdom)
  3. Go to ‘Estado’ (State) and scroll down to the end to ‘Externo do Brasil’ (Outside Brazil)
  4. Click on Atue Agora. By doing so you have signed the petition. You will be taken to another page, which you should ignore.

Amnesty International in a report dated 25 April  has expressed dismay after President Bolsonaro questioned the impartiality of the investigation into the killing of Marielle Franco and revealed that he asked the Federal Police to interrogate two suspects about alleged connections with himself, suggesting that the Federal Police adopts lines of investigation at the government’s convenience.

A Reuters article  dated 28 April 2020 reports that President Jair Bolsonaro has named a family friend to head the Federal Police, days after his justice minister quit, accusing the president of meddling in law enforcement for political motives.

All the best,

South America Team – Richard Crosfield (Colombia, Argentina), David Palmer (Brazil) and Graham Minter (rest of South America).

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