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map courtesy CIA World Factbook; click for enlargement Constitution, Government & Legislation

Under the 1999 Constitution, the President of Venezuela is elected by a plurality vote with direct and universal suffrage. The term of office is 6 years, and a president may be re-elected to a single consecutive term. The President appoints the Vice President. He decides the size and composition of the cabinet and makes appointments to it with the involvement of the National Assembly. Legislation can be initiated by the executive branch, the legislative branch (either a committee of the National Assembly or three members of the latter), the judicial branch, the citizen branch (ombudsman, public prosecutor, and controller general) or a public petition signed by no fewer than 0.1% of registered voters. The President can ask the National Assembly to reconsider portions of laws he finds objectionable, but a simple majority of the Assembly can override these objections.

The National Assembly is unicameral, consisting solely of the Chamber of Deputies. Deputies serve 5-year terms, and may be re-elected for a maximum of two additional terms. These legislative agents are elected by a combination of party list and single member constituencies. When the Congress is not in session, its delegated committee acts on matters relating to the executive and in oversight functions.

The Constitution designates three additional branches of the Federal government--the judicial, citizen, and electoral branches.

The citizens branch consists of three components--the prosecutor general ("fiscal general"), the "defender of the people" or ombudsman, and the comptroller general. The holders of these offices, in addition to fulfilling their specific functions, also act collectively as the "Republican Moral Council" to challenge before the Supreme Tribunal actions they believe are illegal, particularly those which violate the Constitution. The holders of the "citizen power" offices are selected for terms of 7 years by the National Assembly.

The "Electoral Power," otherwise known as the National Electoral Council, is responsible for organizing elections at all levels. Its members are also elected to 7-year terms by the National Assembly.

Source: U.S. Department of State

Courts & Judgments

The Venezuelan judicial branch is headed by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, which may meet either in specialized chambers (of which there are six) or in plenary session. The justices are appointed by the National Assembly and serve 12-year terms. The judicial branch also consists of lower courts, including district courts, municipal courts, and courts of first instance.

Source: U.S. Department of State

Human Rights

There were improvements in some human rights areas during 2001; however, the Venezuelan Government's human rights record remained poor or worsened in other areas where there traditionally have been serious problems. In addition, problems arose in human rights areas that traditionally have not been of concern. The police and military committed extrajudicial killings of criminal suspects at an increased rate. The majority of these killings were attributed to state and local police forces that have little training or supervision. Police also were accused of having links to a vigilante "death squad" responsible for dozens of killings in one state. Excessive use of deadly force by police and security forces continued to be a serious problem. The pace of investigations into the forced disappearances of criminal suspects by the security forces remained extremely slow. Torture and abuse of detainees persisted, and the Government failed to punish police and security officers guilty of abuses. Severe overcrowding in prisons continued to decrease; however, general prison conditions remained harsh due to underfunding, poorly trained and corrupt staff, and violence and overcrowding in some prisons so severe as to constitute inhuman and degrading treatment. Arbitrary arrests and detentions decreased. Lengthy pretrial detention and corruption and severe inefficiency in the judicial and law enforcement systems also were problems.

The Government continued to struggle to implement the 1999 Organic Criminal Procedures Code (COPP), which requires a shift from a secretive inquisitorial system to an open adversarial system, and in November the National Assembly approved reforms to the COPP. However, the law's implementation continued to result in human rights improvements, including an ongoing reduction in the number of prisoners not convicted of a crime. The authorities continued to replace judges for incompetence or corruption, and overall judicial reform proceeded. However, the slow pace at which judges were replaced via competitive examinations meant that as of August, 90 percent of judges in the country were temporary. The 1999 Constitution established civilian trials for soldiers accused of human rights abuses, and this provision passed its first major test with the Siccat case, involving an officer convicted of murdering a fellow soldier. Security forces continued to commit illegal searches.

Concern over freedom of expression increased significantly, due in part to a June Supreme Court ruling that could limit press freedom and an October 2000 decree from the Ministry of Education that could allow state interference in private schools. Some critics charged that the Government intimidated the media, and self-censorship reportedly was widespread. Concern over freedom of association remained high and increased among human rights organizations, due to a November 2000 Supreme Court ruling that could limit the legal rights of some associations. The Government ignored some refugees or described them as "displaced persons in transit," restricting their ability to request asylum. However, in August the National Assembly approved a law on refuge and asylum designed to broaden refugees' rights and improve their treatment. Human rights organizations continued to object to the way the national Human Rights Ombudsman was chosen and complained that the office has acted on few cases brought before it. Violence and discrimination against women, abuse of children, discrimination against persons with disabilities, and inadequate protection of the rights of indigenous people remained problems. Although concern over labor rights remained, the atmosphere for independent labor unions improved significantly. Child labor persisted. There were reports that the country was a source, destination, and transit country for trafficked persons, although the Government took steps to reduce corruption among immigration authorities. Killings due to vigilante actions increased.

Source: U.S. Department of State
Legal Profession

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