September 19, 2008
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela brusquely expelled two activists from U.S.-based Human Rights Watch on Friday who criticized President Hugo Chavez for political intolerance and for 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 will 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.
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.
"Our phones were confiscated and we were denied permission to call our ambassadors," Wilkinson said, speaking minutes before their flight took off for Sao Paolo and using a cellphone they had managed to hide from authorities.
Vivanco and Wilkinson were in Venezuela to present a report on rights problems after a decade of Chavez 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 violates 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 has strengthened laws that penalize defamation and insults against officials.
The report praises the Venezuelan constitution, written by Chavez supporters in 1999, for enshrining many basic rights, but it says the president has failed to implement it.
(Reporting by Saul Hudson, editing by Ross Colvin)