September 19, 2008
CARACAS -- José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, was forcibly expelled from Venezuela Thursday night after presenting a report critical of the country's human rights record.
Shortly before midnight, Vivanco and Deputy Director Daniel Wilkinson were intercepted at their Caracas hotel by a score of armed men, some in military uniform, the two confirmed by e-mail from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
''They wrestled with us to separate us and forcibly took our cellphones,'' Vivanco told The Miami Herald.
In a statement, the Venezuelan foreign ministry said that with his statements earlier in the day, Vivanco had ``violated the constitution and the laws of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.''
It accused him of ``attacking the institutions of Venezuelan democracy [and] illegally interfering in the internal affairs of our country.''
''It's an absurd charge, but unfortunately the sort of thing we're used to hearing from this government,'' Vivanco said. ``Rather than address human rights concerns, Chavez and his ministers routinely accuse rights advocates of being agents of the US government.''
In a 230-page report, Human Rights Watch concluded, among other things, that the government of President Hugo Chávez had engaged in systematic political discrimination and shown ''open disregard'' for the principle of separation of powers.
Foreign minister Nicolás Maduro confirmed in statements to the press that the two men had been put on the first available plane out of the country.
He added that similar actions by, ''any other foreigner, at the service of a foreign country -- in this case at the service of the government of the United States'' would meet with the same response.
Vivanco and Wilkinson will not be allowed to return to Venezuela, Maduro said.
''This is the first time this has ever happened to Human Rights Watch in this hemisphere,'' Vivanco said.
The organization, which is the largest independent, U.S.-based human rights monitor, has been working in the region for more than 20 years.