CARACAS, Venezuela – With power concentrated in the presidency and stripped of human rights safeguards, the Hugo Chavez administration freely intimidates, censors and prosecutes its critics, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.
The independent advocacy group's 134-page report, "Tightening the Grip: Concentration and Abuse of Power in Chavez's Venezuela," comes four years after its regional director and his deputy were forcibly expelled from Venezuela after presenting a report that reached a similar conclusion.
In the interim, "the human rights situation in Venezuela has become even more precarious," the new report says.
Venezuelan officials did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment on the report.
Its release comes as Chavez, after 13 years in power promoting a socialist agenda that has included expropriation of private businesses, faces re-election on Oct. 7 against an opponent who accuses him of unfairly using state resources and monopolizing broadcast airwaves to his advantage.
"With conditions of a very solid consolidation of power, it is a real challenge," the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, said of the situation confronting opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.
Vivanco said he was especially worried what would occur if the election's outcome were contested in court, saying Venezuela's judiciary has shown itself "to be completely subordinated to the wishes and the needs, strategies and goals of the government."
Chavez, 57, began campaigning this month after undergoing treatment in Cuba over the past year for an unspecified cancer in his pelvic area, declaring last week that he is "cancer-free" but limiting appearances outside the capital to two days a week.
The latest poll gives Chavez a 15-point lead over Capriles, though it also found 23 percent of voters undecided. The Datanalisis poll released Monday had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The 40-year-old Capriles, a centrist governor who Chavez labels a "mama's boy" and a bourgeois tool of "Yankee imperialists," has refrained from personal attacks on the incumbent and focused his campaign on promises to combat rampant crime and government corruption.
Capriles is doing so in a climate in which "the Chavez government (has secured) free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticize the president or thwart his political agenda," the Human Rights Watch report says.
In the past four years, a Chavez-dominated Congress has passed laws expanding the government's powers to limit free speech and punish its critics while the Supreme Court, re-packed with Chavez supporters, "has explicitly rejected the principle that the judiciary should serve as a check on presidential power," it says.
Other key complaints lodged by the rights group:
— The Chavez government "has enacted rules that dramatically reduce the public's right to obtain information held by the government."
— The administration's constant attacks on local rights defenders, whom authorities portray as enemies of the people, has helped make them "more vulnerable to acts of intimidation by low-level officials and threats and acts of violence" by Chavez supporters.
— The government's deeds have sent a clear message to judges, journalists, broadcasters and rights defenders in particular that "the president and his followers are willing and able to punish people who challenge or obstruct their political aims."
Although many Venezuelans continue to criticize the government, the fear of reprisal has had a chilling effect on the media and "undercut the ability of judges to adjudicate politically sensitive cases," the report says.
Human Rights Watch said its report, which details well-publicized and less-known cases of what it calls arbitrary government abuses, is based on extensive research and four visits from May 2010 to March 2012.
During those visits, its investigators "intentionally avoided establishing contact with government officials or drawing public attention," the group said.
The group said it had submitted written requests for information to high-level Venezuelan officials but received no responses.