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Caracas sends rights activists packing

Latest update : 2008-09-20

Two activists from the non-profit organization Human Rights Watch were expelled from Venezuela Friday after accusing President Hugo Chavez of eroding democracy in the country over the last decade.

CARACAS - Venezuela brusquely expelled two activists from U.S.-based Human Rights Watch on Friday who had accused President Hugo Chavez of political intolerance and eroding democracy during nearly 10 years in power.

State television played a video of officials reading an expulsion order to activists Jose Miguel Vivanco and Daniel Wilkinson, who were filmed packing their bags and being escorted on to a plane that took off just after midnight.

The move highlighted the leftist leader’s intolerance of international criticism and may further strain ties with the United States, Venezuela’s main oil customer, a week after Chavez also ejected the U.S. ambassador.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Venezuela an autocracy on Thursday.

Human Rights Watch is an independent group, but Chavez says it collaborates with the Bush administration in a campaign to unseat him and ignores his government’s advances in reducing poverty.

“These groups, dressed up as human rights defenders, are financed by the United States,” said Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro. “They are aligned with a policy of attacking countries that are building new economic models.”

Human Rights Watch is also fiercely critical of the rights record of Venezuela’s neighbor Colombia, whose right-wing government is a close Washington ally. Politically motivated murder is common in Colombia.

‘CLEAR ACT OF CENSORSHIP’

The activists said they were forced to hurriedly check out of their hotel by the police around midnight. Government officials said they were put on the first flight leaving Caracas.

“Being expelled like this was a clear act of censorship and evidence our report was right on target,” said Wilkinson in Sao Paulo as he prepared to board a flight back to the United States.

“Rather than dealing with the substance of the report, they make these ridiculous claims about us being financed by the U.S. government. (Human Rights Watch) is very critical about the U.S. and have issued various reports on it,” he said, adding it was the first time the rights group had been expelled from a Latin American country.

Vivanco and Wilkinson were in Venezuela to present a report on rights problems after a decade of Chavez’s government. They said Chavez encouraged discrimination against political opponents, stacked the courts and dampened freedom of expression.

Venezuelan governments have traditionally handed out jobs to political allies, but Human Rights Watch says the practice has worsened under Chavez.

In the video of their expulsion, Vivanco is told his criticism of the government in a news conference broadcast on television on Thursday violated Venezuela law. He is told he is being expelled for entering Venezuela on a tourist visa.

Freedom of speech is one of the areas of concern highlighted by Human Rights Watch, with the report expressing concern that Venezuela had strengthened laws that penalize defamation and insults against officials.

The report praised the Venezuelan constitution, written by Chavez supporters in 1999, for enshrining many basic rights, but it said the president had failed to implement it.

Date created : 2008-09-20

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