Defamation / Reputation, Digital Rights, Violence Against Speakers / Impunity
Andrea Lilian Uribe Peña v. Ministry of Labour and Carlos Alberto Merchán Espíndola
Closed Expands Expression
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The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) considered that the State of Venezuela was internationally responsible for the violation of the right to life of Néstor José Uzcátegui. It also considered that Venezuela failed to adopt reasonable and necessary measures to guarantee the effective enjoyment of the rights to personal integrity and freedom of expression of Luis Enrique Uzcátegui. Finally, it considered that the State did not guarantee the right to personal integrity of Luis Enrique Uzcátegui’s family members. Néstor José Uzcátegui was murdered by members of the Venezuelan security forces. Subsequently, his brother Luis Enrique Uzcátegui and his family were harassed, intimidated, and threatened as a result of their quest for justice for the murder. Luis Enrique, a human rights defender, used judicial means and publicly denounced the then Commander General of the Falcón State Armed Police Forces as responsible for his brother’s murder and for a series of murders carried out by “extermination groups” under his command. As a result, the commander filed a defamation suit against him. The IACtHR held that intimidation of a person for exercising his or her right to freedom of expression, as well as the existence of criminal proceedings against him or her, their duration in time, and the official position of the person initiating the proceedings against a person for having denounced a public official, can have a deterrent effect on a person exercising his or her right to freedom of expression.
On January 1, 2001, Néstor José Uzcátegui was murdered by members of the Police Investigation Directorate and an elite group of the Armed Police Forces of the State of Falcón, Venezuela, who illegally raided his home. On the same day, his brothers Luis Enrique and Carlos Eduardo were illegally detained.
Luis Enrique Uzcátegui was a human rights defender and after his brother’s death he became president of the Commission for the Defence of Human Rights in the state of Falcón. Luis Enrique dedicated himself to seeking justice for the death of his brother through judicial channels and media complaints. In fact, on several occasions he denounced to the media the delay in the investigations aimed at ascertaining his brother’s murder and other human rights violations allegedly committed by the security forces of the State of Falcón.
Luis Enrique and his family suffered from various acts of harassment, threats, and intimidation as a result of their pursuits. These acts of violence were reported to the authorities, and Luis Enrique was forced to move to a different residence on several occasions. These events occurred “in a context in which acts of harassment, threats, arbitrary arrests, intimidation and extrajudicial executions by police officers, particularly against human rights defenders, were frequent, particularly at the state and municipal levels” [para. 187].
In October 2002, in order to protect the life and personal integrity of Luis Enrique Uzcátegui, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted precautionary measures in his favour. Subsequently, due to the Venezuelan State’s failure to adopt protective measures, the IACtHR ordered provisional measures.
Furthermore, on several occasions, Luis Enrique Uzcátegui denounced to the media the then Commander General of the Falcón State Armed Police Forces, who he claimed was responsible for a series of murders carried out by “extermination groups” under his command. Indeed, he stated that “[i]t is not possible that a year and a half has already passed since these murders, blatantly committed by death squads and directed by a murderous Commander and a Second Commander, such as Oswaldo Rodríguez León and Jesús López Marcano, coordinators of these extermination groups, began. […] Lock up these murderers disguised in police uniforms” [p. 178]. Likewise, on other occasions, he stated “that he held the extermination groups – mainly their commander-in-chief – responsible for the death of his brother Néstor José. He also held them responsible for what might happen to him, in view of the acts of intimidation he had been subjected to by police officers” [p. 132].
As a result of these statements, in 2003, Commander General Oswaldo Rodríguez León filed a defamation suit against Luis Enrique Uzcátegui before the Criminal Judicial Circuit of the State of Falcón. On 9 April 2008, the court in charge dismissed the case.
Article 444 of the Venezuelan Criminal Code, on the crime of defamation, establishes that: “Anyone who, communicating with several persons together or separately, has imputed to any individual a specific act capable of exposing him to public contempt or hatred, or offensive to his honour or reputation, shall be punished with three to eighteen months’ imprisonment. If the offence is committed in a public document or by writings, drawings disclosed or exposed to the public, or by other means of publicity, the penalty shall be six to thirty months’ imprisonment.”
The Court had to resolve two legal problems. Firstly, it had to determine whether in a context in which “acts of harassment, threats, arbitrary detentions, intimidation and extrajudicial executions by police officers and, in particular, to the detriment of human rights defenders” were frequent, the State had the obligation to adopt protective measures to guarantee the personal integrity of those who denounce human rights violations and who are effectively in a situation of serious risk.
Secondly, it had to decide whether the criminal defamation proceedings brought by a high-ranking official of the armed forces against Mr. Luis Enrique Uzcátegui for publicly denouncing human rights violations by the public forces violated, among others, the right to freedom of expression.
The Court indicated that freedom of expression may be unlawfully restricted when there are “de facto conditions” that, directly or indirectly, place those who exercise their freedom of expression in a position of risk or increased vulnerability. In this sense, States must avoid acting in a way that “favours, encourages, promotes or deepens such vulnerability and must adopt, where appropriate, necessary and reasonable measures to prevent violations or to protect the rights of those in such a situation” [para. 190].
In this case, the Court considered it reasonable to infer that the illegal detention to which Luis Enrique and Carlos Eduardo Uzcátegui were subjected after the murder of their brother was intended to make them feel frightened and intimidated by the security forces.
On the other hand, the Court pointed out that the various acts of harassment and threats against Luis Enrique Uzcátegui commenced after he began to seek justice for the death of his brother and publicly denounced other human rights violations committed by the security forces in the State of Falcón. He also indicated that these threats and harassment were intended to “intimidate him and to make him cease such denunciations” [para. 184]. It indicated that although the State of Venezuela was aware of the level of risk in which Luis Enrique Uzcátegui found himself, in view of the request for domestic and international protection measures, it did not adopt adequate measures to protect him. In addition to the foregoing, the acts of threats and harassment were framed in a context “in which acts of harassment, threats, arbitrary detentions, intimidation and extrajudicial executions by police officers were frequent, particularly at the state and municipal levels, and, in particular, to the detriment of human rights defenders” [para. 187].
With regard to the criminal defamation proceedings against Luis Enrique Uzcátegui, the Court took into account that the expressions disseminated were also brought to the attention of the authorities competent to investigate them by means of complaints. In this sense, for the Court, these expressions could be understood as part of “a broader public debate about the possible involvement of State security forces in cases of serious human rights violations” [para. 188].
The Court considered that “Mr. Uzcátegui was kept in a situation of uncertainty, insecurity and intimidation due to the existence of criminal proceedings against him, in view of the high position held by the person who filed the complaint, indicated in turn in said expressions as one of those allegedly responsible for the facts, in the referred context and in view of the acts of threat, harassment and illegal detentions. Thus, the criminal proceedings could have had an intimidating or inhibiting effect on the exercise of his freedom of expression, contrary to the State’s obligation to guarantee the free and full exercise of this right in a democratic society” [para. 189].
Therefore, the Court considered that the State of Venezuela did not adopt the reasonable and necessary measures to guarantee the effective enjoyment of the rights to personal integrity and freedom of thought and expression of Mr. Luis Enrique Uzcátegui.
Finally, it considered that Néstor and Luis Enrique Uzcátegui’s family members were also the target of several acts of threats and harassment, and some of them had to leave their place of residence. Thus, the State of Venezuela did not guarantee their right to personal integrity.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The Inter-American Court expands the scope of freedom of expression by stating that intimidation of a person for exercising his or her right to freedom of expression and the existence of criminal proceedings, their duration in time, and the official position of the person initiating the proceedings against a person for having denounced a public official can have an intimidating effect on the person exercising his or her right to freedom of expression.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
Decisions of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights are binding on the respective State and set standards that must be taken into account by the judicial bodies of all State Parties to the American Convention on Human Rights in relevant cases.
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