Chavez-run government holds total power: rights group

Venezuela's government, headed by ailing and absent President Hugo Chavez, holds "total" power while the country's Supreme Court lacks all credibility, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

"In Venezuela, there is what one would call a total concentration of power," Jose Miguel Vivanco, HRW's America's director told reporters at the presentation of the group's annual global rights report.

"What should constitute a democratic regime with separation of powers does not exist," Vivanco said, adding that the state's Supreme Court has lacked "the absolute minimum credibility" since it was "captured" by the Chavez government in 2004.

The Supreme Court played a central role recently in upholding the constitutionality of the government's decision to indefinitely delay Chavez's swearing in to a new term six year term on January 10.

Chavez, who is convalescing from a fourth round of cancer surgery in Cuba, was too sick to make it back for the inauguration. But the delay allows him and his government to stay in office until he is well enough to take the oath.

Meanwhile, Chavez, who won reelection in October, has not been seen in public since December 10, the day before he underwent surgery.

Vivanco called the Supreme Court's decision "quite surprising," saying it left Venezuela in a "very abnormal situation" where "the former government still rules."

"This is very revealing and an excellent example... of what it means to not have an independent judiciary that can preserve and uphold democratic principles and the very constitution devised by President Chavez."

HRW said in its latest report that during Chavez's presidency, "the accumulation of power in the executive branch and the erosion of human rights guarantees have enabled his government to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticize the president or thwart his political agenda."

It added that Venezuelans who criticize the government face reprisals and, among other things, "has undercut the ability of judges to adjudicate politically sensitive cases."

While the Chavez government has "abused its powers to regulate the media," its prisons are among the most violent in the region.

Earlier this month, a riot at a prison in the country's northwest left 58 dead and twice as many wounded.

The Venezuelan government regularly dismisses HRW's reports.