Case of jailed union leader in Venezuela draws condemnation from human rights groups

January 21, 2011

By Christopher Toothaker via The Canadian Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — Union leader Ruben Gonzalez once admired and supported President Hugo Chavez. Nowadays, he is jailed in a police station in eastern Venezuela, and says his yearlong imprisonment shows the government’s intolerance for labour protests.

Gonzalez told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his cell on Thursday that he is confident “divine justice will prevail” and he will eventually be freed. He is being prosecuted on charges stemming from a strike he helped organize that temporarily paralyzed the country’s state-run iron mining company in 2009, and his case is drawing condemnation from international labour and human rights organizations.

“The government is criminalizing protests,” Gonzalez said by cellphone, which he is allowed to use in the jail.

Gonzalez was scheduled to appear in court Friday, the one-year anniversary of his imprisonment. But he said he does not expect the judge to reach a verdict anytime soon, noting that he has already appeared in court more than a dozen times over the past 15 months, and that hearings have also repeatedly been postponed.

Gonzalez is charged with crimes including unlawful assembly, public incitement to commit crimes and violation of a government security zone during the strike at CVG Ferrominera Orinoco CA, better known as Ferrominera.

Thor Halvorssen, president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, said Gonzalez is being prosecuted as part of a wider government effort to curb the power of labour unions, particularly at state-operated firms like Ferrominera.

“The Chavez government claims to be in favour of workers’ rights, but these do not include the rights of the tens of thousands of Venezuelans working in state-owned corporations,” Halvorssen said in a statement sent to the AP.

The Human Rights Foundation said that according to a tally by the local human rights group Provea, more than 2,200 Venezuelans who have participated in protests have been charged with a variety of crimes over the past five years — and some have been prohibited from speaking publicly about their cases or banned from participating in protests while their cases are pending. Many of those arrested were public employees involved in labour disputes.

Chavez has not publicly commented on accusations that the authorities are using the courts and prosecutors to limit labour disputes or curb protests. The president has repeatedly said his socialist-oriented government has done more for the working class than previous administrations, and has said he has union interests at heart.

Prosecutors handling the case could not be reached for comment.

Before his arrest, Gonzalez never got into trouble with management during nearly three decades working and participating in union activities. As the leader of Ferrominera’s largest union, he was optimistic the government would support workers in their efforts to secure higher salaries, better benefits and improved working conditions.

“I thought there could be more understanding between workers and the government,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez helped organize 2,000 workers who joined a strike on Aug. 12, 2009, to protest Ferrominera’s failure to comply with a new labour contract signed that year. The strike, along with demonstrations staged at the iron mill in Cuidad Guayana, ended two weeks later, when workers reached an agreement with management that included the company’s commitment to fulfil contract obligations.

The following month, police and a judge ordered Gonzalez to be placed under house arrest. He remained confined to his home until Jan. 21, 2010, when another judge ordered him jailed and prohibited him from participating in union activities.

The 51-year-old is unsure how many years he could face in prison if he is convicted. A father of four, he has been permitted regular family visits at the police station in Ciudad Guayana where he is being held.

The Human Rights Foundation declared Gonzalez to be a “prisoner of conscience” and demanded prosecutors immediately drop the charges.

“The government must release him and stop treating dissent as a crime,” Halvorssen said.

Venezuelan human rights groups have raised similar concerns.

In its annual report last year, the group Provea condemned what it called “criminalization of peaceful protests,” and said the government has “a state policy aimed at putting up obstacles to social struggles through judicial procedures, mainly criminal trials.”

Provea called the prosecution of Gonzalez “an emblematic case.”

Gonzalez, a devout Christian, said he awakes each day before dawn to pray by candlelight in his cell.

“God is giving me strength,” he said.