Student protests blocked by tear gas and bullets

Students are increasingly on the front lines of the political battle over economic and social conditions in Venezuela, both on campus and throughout the country.

Their protests have frequently been met with violent retaliation, including by state security forces, resulting in deaths and injuries from bullets, rubber bullets, shotgun pellets, tear gas and pepper spray, according to Scholars at Risk’s annual report on threats to higher education.

There has also been a “rise in mass arrests, with widespread reports of custodial abuse and detention without charge”, said the report, Freedom to think 2017.

Scholars at Risk, or SAR, condemned the use of “violence and wrongful arrest by state authorities against peaceful protesters on and off campus”, and called on state authorities to “protect academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association and to ensure that perpetrators of any past violations are held accountable”.

Putting the reports of student deaths and injuries in context, SAR noted that a team of United Nations investigators found that since 1 April the government has detained more than 5,000 protesters and more than 120 people have been killed during protests.

Students have been on the front lines in Venezuela, the report said. It documents incidents that have taken place on campus or on exiting campus in which police or security forces responded with violence.

For instance, on 24 October 2016 university students from across the country organised protests against the cancellation of a referendum to remove President Nicolás Maduro from office.

At the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas students planning to march from the campus to a city plaza were intercepted en route by police officers, who used tear gas, pepper spray and buckshot to try to block their passage. At least 27 students were injured in the clash.

On 14 February this year a group of students at Táchira campus of the University of Los Andes or ULA organised a protest against the alleged use of force by police on other campuses the previous day. Police used tear gas and opened fire on the ULA student protests, injuring at least 40, SAR reported.

On 31 March, Bolivarian National Guard or GNB soldiers reportedly attacked students protesting against a 29 March Supreme Court ruling that they argued would weaken the country’s legislature and give too much power to the president.

A week later, on 6 April, police entered the campus of the University of Carabobo in Valencia and clashed with more students protesting the 29 March ruling. At least 27 students were injured by tear gas and shotgun pellets, SAR reported.

On 4 May rubber bullets and tear gas were used to disperse Central University of Venezuela students attempting to leave campus on a march to support the country’s opposition and the families of 35 people who had been killed in protests around the country in the previous two months.

And on 24 May state security forces clashed with students on the campus of Orient University in the City of Bolivar: one student, Augusto Sergio Pugas, died of a bullet wound to the head and seven other students were injured, SAR reported.

Students themselves have in some incidents acted inappropriately or violently, SAR said. On 6 March this year, students at ULA Liria stole several public buses and parked them on campus as part of a protest against a reform of the public transit system. But when police arrived on campus to retrieve the buses, there were clashes and police opened fire on students, injuring three of them, one of whom was hospitalised after being shot in the head.

Similarly, on 5 April this year students at Tachira Experimental University protesting against the 29 March ruling, blocked roads near campus and marched onto campus wearing hoods and throwing stones and Molotov cocktails: police responded with stones, tear gas and shotgun pellets. At least 21 students were treated for tear gas inhalation and shotgun wounds, SAR reported.

Abductions, wrongful arrests

The current unrest has led to an abduction and at least 65 wrongful student arrests and detentions in the past year, SAR said.

Among the examples is a ULA student who, while walking to a protest on 3 November 2016, was forced into an unmarked van and was driven away and held for 10 hours under interrogation by unidentified individuals.

In another incident on 15 May this year, Carlos ‘Pancho’ Ramirez, a ULA law student and leader of student activist group Movimiento 13, was taken into custody by GNB soldiers while he was en route to a protest in Merida. The soldiers transported him to local GNB headquarters, where they detained him incommunicado until 17 May, SAR reported.

He was then transferred to a military airbase in Barquisimeto, and later Santa Ana Prison, in Tachira State. Ramirez is expected to be tried by a military court on charges including ‘instigation to rebellion’, which carries a sentence of five to 10 years’ imprisonment.

On 15 June this year, during a march to protest against President Maduro’s proposal for a National Constituent Assembly, 11 university students were arrested and transferred to a high-risk prison. The students were released on bail on 11 August.

And on 2 July this summer, GNB soldiers entered the campus of the Pedagogical Experimental University in Maracay, where a group of students was non-violently protesting against the Maduro regime. According to reports, the soldiers beat students and security staff, ultimately arresting 27 students.

The students were later charged with offences including ‘instigating rebellion’, ‘theft of military property’, and ‘violation of a security zone’.

SAR said the violent attacks on student protesters and the large number of injuries are only part of the story as many more students have been injured, and at least 21 killed, in off-campus protests around the country in which students were mixed in with other protesters from the general population, but those events are not classified by SAR as an attack on higher education or academic freedom.