I was born and raised in Venezuela, therefore since a young age I was aware of who Hugo Chavez was and how 21st century socialism works.
When I finished high school I decided that I would study Law, back then the last thing I thought was that I would end up working in the Human Rights field. However, in 2014 when I finished my degree and while I was waiting for my certificate, Venezuelan mass protests against the government started. These in particular were headed by university students and supported by people of all ages who were fed up with the economic, political, and social crisis Venezuela was going through. I was 20 years old at the time, so this was the first opportunity I had to consciously take part in the protests, to do it by my own choice and without any restriction from my parents.
As the protests developed and the number of and the number of participants in the street increased, police and military repression intensified aggressively, this involved arbitrary detentions, unauthorized and violent raids in residential areas, and unwarranted counter-insurgency strategies against the marchers. I was shocked by this kind of actions, I had just finished my degree and this was nowhere near as what I had been taught in Law school.
Coping with this, my immediate reaction was calling my former professors and asking them for help to take up the cases of people who had been arbitrarily detained. Although I received their support, most of them weren’t willing to go through all the judicial process. It was then when I met a group of volunteer lawyers who worked providing legal assistance to the arbitrarily detained, and that’s when I went from being a simple protestor to being this group of lawyers’ assistant.
Since then, my participation in the protests changed, and my days went by visiting detention centers in order to talk to the victims’ relatives and being in courtrooms assisting the lawyers. After a few weeks into this, one of my professors called me to warn me and my co-workers about something we were ignoring until then: that all the cases and information we were managing had to be documented and that we had to make the respective reports. If we didn’t do this, all the effort we were doing would be erased in time, and most importantly, we wouldn’t get an effective response and actions towards the human rights violations that had happened. Ever since then, I started documenting the cases of human rights violations with the help of a friend, colleague, and later co-founder of an NGO.
Now, documenting sounds pretty straight forward in theory, you explain the victim why you need to document it and how much better the process will go the sooner it gets documented, since the details are important to determine exactly which rights were violated, then you find a meeting place where the victim feels comfortable enough to share their testimony, among other things. However, this process turns out to be quite different when it’s done during times of protests and political persecution, starting with the fact that many of the victims weren’t even aware that their rights had been violated.
This way, not only did I get my first job as a defender, but I also learned how to do it under harsh and irregular circumstances, that’s the reason why through the next part of this article I will share some basics how to make an effective documentation during times of political crisis.
Establishing trust during interviews
Many of the people we managed to assist in Maracaibo were reluctant to report on their cases, since they didn’t know who we were and naturally doubted our good intentions. With that in mind, we decided to go to the detention centers and the residential areas, where the raids were taking place, in order to have a face-to-face conversation with the victims.
This way we had the chance to explain to them, first and foremost, that what was happening to them was something out of the ordinary, and that they had done nothing wrong. We also made sure they understood that the actions performed by the policemen were violating their constitutional and human rights, and consequently, they were being the victims, so the only way to place these events on record was reporting them.
As lawyer, professor, and human rights defender, reporting such kind of situations is absolutely imperative to me, but one must always respect the victim’s decision, this means keeping things private if so they want to, and never judging them for refusing to report.
Identifying the right location
Under these harsh circumstances, meeting with people who had been previously identified as “opposition” was quite difficult, because the Venezuelan Criminal Code states a type of crime called “criminal association,” referring to when two or more people gather to commit a crime. Evidently, in the eyes of government officials, documenting the human rights violation that they had done was more than enough for us to be prosecuted for this crime.
Because of that, one of the most important things to take into consideration is choosing a meeting place located far enough from the “crime” scene; therefore, the victim’s residence is often not an option to make the documentation. It also shouldn’t be a place directly linked to any of the people who carry out the documentation process, since this could lead to grave disservices not only to them, but also to their families.
Try to make separate appointments for each victim individually and at different hours, this is recommended in order to keep things more private and strengthen the trust you already established with them. Keep in mind that, on the one hand, the person probably won’t feel comfortable discussing their case around people they don’t know; they’ll feel safer talking only to the person that first contacted them, and on the other, the less people gather, the less you’re likely to attract any undesired attention. I also recommend to constantly change the meeting times and places in order to avoid a routine that might be easily detected and intercepted.
Choosing the right means of communication
When we find ourselves in an environment of political crisis, telephone communication must be avoided at all levels, since interception of calls and text messages is very common in this scenery, even more so when this involves people who have been previously identified and are now a target.
That’s why I recommend not mentioning any meeting place or times through phone calls, all the directions must be agreed personally. At the time, my co-workers and I used to have keywords to identify the specific places where the documentation process would take place and where we would go in case of an interception.
You must always have backups of the documentation, and backups of those backups, information collected shouldn’t be kept in only one place, it’s recommended to have an external hard drive with the data kept in a safe place, preferably someone you can trust and that is currently out of the work group.
Additionally, I suggest you to make regular backups of your cellphone so you don’t keep any information about the victims or their cases in it, because this is something you usually carry everywhere and in case you’re detained, it’ll be confiscated and inspected.
Having a security protocol
It’s important to be aware that, during a political and social crisis, documenting human rights violations for subsequent reports might have serious repercussions, and this is a reality you must accept. Therefore it is recommended to have a security protocol with your work team where you consider even the worst scenarios possible and decide which action plan you will use. This involves information like who to call in case you’re detained, what level of public visibility you’d like to be given to your case, etc.)
All of the information I’m sharing in this article was obtained by trial-and-error work. This was my first experience working as a lawyer, I had never done anything like that, and I never thought that would become my day to day. Right now, Venezuela’s political, social, and economic crisis has worsened, so have the protests, and so has the brutal repression from the government. Each one of the previous tips are being currently used, this time on a much more organized way through CODHEZ, an NGO I co-founded with my work team back in 2014, which is specially dedicated to defend, document, and give visibility to the increasing amount of human rights violation cases here in the Zulia state, Venezuela.