Inter-American Court of Human Rights judgment of 30 August 2019 in the case of Alvarez Ramos v. Venezuela (Series C, case No. 380).
The applicant was assisted in preparing a complaint to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Washington, USA).
Subsequently, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights referred the applicant's complaint to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (San Jose, Costa Rica). The complaint was then communicated to Venezuela.
The case successfully considered a complaint about criminal prosecution and conviction of a person in connection with the publication of an editorial article on the alleged waste of budget funds in the Legislative Assembly of Venezuela.
The case addresses issues of criminal prosecution and conviction of a person in connection with the publication of an editorial on the alleged waste of budget funds in the Legislative Assembly of Venezuela.
THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE
The case concerned the criminal proceedings against Tulio Alvarez Ramos, which were initiated by the President of the Legislative Assembly of Venezuela. The applicant published an editorial in which he exposed the embezzlement of budget funds in the Legislative Assembly. The presiding judge forbade the applicant to leave the country without prior permission. In February 2005, the court sentenced the applicant to a sentence of imprisonment of two years and three months for the offense of “continued aggravated defamation”. He was also banned from running in elections or in government. The sentence was suspended pending compliance with the requirements set by the courts. The applicant lodged several complaints, but to no avail. In March 2009, he served his full sentence.
QUESTIONS OF LAW
(a) Section 13 (2) (freedom of expression) and section 23 (2) (the right to participate in public administration) in conjunction with section 1, paragraph 1 (duty to respect and guarantee rights without discrimination) of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR). The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (hereinafter - the Inter-American Court) noted that the imposition of punishment for the exercise of freedom of expression had to comply with the requirements of legality, legitimate aim and necessity. In the case of statements that are subject to the protection of public interest, such as related to the actions of officials in the exercise of their powers, a punitive response from the state through the application of criminal law was not appropriate, from the point of view of ACHR, to protect the honor and dignity of the official.
The Inter-American Court considered that the article published by the applicant contained information that was of public interest, since the person mentioned in the article at that time held a public office and was associated with the events described, and the topic was of public interest.
The Inter-American Court noted that, in matters of public interest, protection was granted not only to opinions that were accepted favorably or were harmless, but also to those that offend, shock or harass officials or any segment of the population, as in the present case. Criminal penalties for the dissemination of such opinions, directly or indirectly, will lead to intimidation, which in turn limits freedom of expression and hinders public scrutiny of officials who violate the law, as in the case of corruption. The foregoing will lead to a weakening of public control over state power and serious damage to democratic pluralism.
Thus, the Inter-American Court found that the applicant's actions could not be considered as prohibited by the criminal law and concluded that there had been a violation of Article 13 § 2 of the ACHR. In addition, since it was found that the applicant's prosecution and punishment did not comply with the ACHR, the Inter-American Court ruled that there had also been a violation of Article 23 of the ACHR in the case.
(b) Section 8 § 1 (right to a fair trial) in conjunction with Article 1 § 1 (duty to respect and guarantee rights without discrimination) ACHR. The Inter-American Court noted that the right of a party to adequate time and funds for the preparation of the defense obliged the authorities of the respondent State to provide the defendant with access to the case file and the charges brought against them, as well as to comply with the adversarial principle. In the present case, it has been shown that, prior to the start of the trial, the applicant and his lawyers did not have access to the videotapes which served as the basis for changing the charges. Thus, the Inter-American Court concluded that this limitation prevented the applicant from properly exercising his defense in violation of Article 8 § 2 (c) of the ACHR. On the other hand, as regards the incarceration of a witness while testifying and the decision to exclude his testimony from evidence, the Inter-American Court considered that this led at least to fear or fear among subsequent witnesses. Likewise, the lack of justification or reasoning in the detention order (since it was based solely on the statements of the opposing party's lawyer) violated the due process guarantees of Article 8 § 2 (f) of the ACHR.
(c) Paragraph 2 of Article 22 (freedom of movement) in conjunction with paragraph 1 of Article 1 (duty to respect and guarantee rights without discrimination) ACHR. The Inter-American Court ruled that the right to freedom of movement, including the right to leave the country, may be subject to restrictions in accordance with the provisions of section 22 paragraph 3 and section 30 of the ACHR. To establish such restrictions, states must comply with the requirements of legality, necessity and proportionality. The Inter-American Court also recalled that preventive measures affecting the personal freedom and freedom of movement of the accused were exceptional. Thus, in the present case it has been established that the court order by which the applicant was prohibited from leaving the country did not contain objective analysis or information indicating a risk that the accused might abscond. In this regard, the Inter-American Court concluded that the necessity and proportionality of the interference had not been proven, and this was in violation of Article 22 ACHR.
(d) Section 25 (1) (right to judicial protection) in conjunction with Section 1 (1) (duty to respect and guarantee rights without discrimination) ACHR. The Inter-American Court considered that the amparo complaint lodged by the applicant in order to secure his participation in the elections of the faculty association of the Central University of Venezuela was an effective remedy, as the applicant's complaint was dealt with in a timely manner and in accordance with the law. The subsequent quashing of this decision by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court did not affect the protection provided by the original decision, since by that time the conviction had already been canceled and the applicant's right to participate in the administration had been restored. In view of the above, the Inter-American Court concluded that there was no violation of the right to judicial protection in the case.
The Inter-American Court has found that this judgment was itself a form of reparation and ordered the Venezuelan authorities to take the following steps: (i) to take all necessary steps to declare the applicant's sentence and the consequences resulting from it null and void and to annul all judicial or administrative , criminal, electoral or police documents; (ii) publish this Regulation and its official summary; (iii) pay compensation in respect of pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage, as well as legal costs and expenses.