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Isaias Rodriguez

According to Venezuela’s Attorney General, Isaias Rodriguez, the recent reform of Venezuela’s penal code represented an “excessive increase” in penalties. The recent penal code reform, which was first rejected by President Chavez, was made into law last March 16 and has been a cause of numerous criticisms from both Venezuela’s opposition and from international critics such as Human Rights Watch.

Rodriguez said that the lawmakers seemed to forget that the penal code represented the second most important legislative instrument of the country, following the constitution, because it “expresses the relations between state and society in everything that has to do with the Human Rights of citizens.”

The penal code generally expands penalties for a whole variety of areas, such as “disrespecting” or threatening a public official and for conspiring against the country. Also, it eliminates some rights to due process for those accused of conspiracy against the country.

Attorney General Rodriguez went on to say that the National Assembly ignored the President’s recommendations when he sent the law back to the legislature for revisions. According to Venezuela’s constitution, the President may not veto a law, but he may return it to the National Assembly for modifications.

If it passes again, with or without amendments, the text becomes the law of the land.

Rodriguez said that the president had expressed his disagreement with the elimination of procedural rights for some crimes and the elimination of alternative forms of punishment other than imprisonment. Furthermore, some of the penalties are too vague-a criticism that many in the opposition had raised especially with regard to the penalties for disrespecting public officials.

According to Rodriguez, the National Assembly is mistaken to believe that increasing penalties would lessen crime in Venezuela. “On the contrary, what will be achieved is that greater effort and more resources will be devoted to persecute the socially most vulnerable, the poorest, while the big economic powers implicated in the crime remain enjoy impunity,” said Rodriguez. Another consequence will be a reduced confidence in the ability of the state to combat crime, and it will diminish human rights, and will contribute to the weakening of the state.

For Rodriguez the penal code seems to have been copied from the United States, where penal control over society is maximized. He reminded that there is no correlation between incarceration rates and the lowering of crime rates. The United States has the highest incarceration rates and also one of the highest crime rates.

The penal code reform had originally passed the National Assembly (AN) last January, but it did not go into effect because Chavez returned it to the AN on February 10, saying that many of its provisions were unconstitutional. The AN made revisions to it, passing it again last week, March 16, whereupon it passed into effect without the president’s signature.

Human Rights Watch and Venezuela’s opposition also have harshly criticized the law, saying that its provisions for punishing “disrespect” would diminish freedom of speech. Lawmakers have pointed out, though, that the disrespect clauses have been on the books for a long time and this has not diminished freedom of speech.