CARACAS, Venezuela – A new intelligence law that President Hugo Chavez enacted by decree is drawing protests from human rights activists who say it could lead to serious violations of civil liberties and become a tool for cracking down on dissent.
Chavez says the Intelligence and Counterintelligence Law will help Venezuela detect and neutralize national security threats, including any assassination attempts or attempted coups.
But human rights activists warn that the law infringes on rights to due process and defense.
Under the law that Chavez decreed last week, Venezuelans who refuse to act as informants for intelligence agencies face up to four years in prison. Security forces don't need court orders for surveillance such as wiretapping and authorities can withhold evidence from defense lawyers if that is deemed to be in the interest of national security.
"Any suspect's right to defense can be violated, and that's unacceptable," Carlos Correa, a leader of the Venezuelan human rights group Provea, said on Monday.
Some also fear neighborhood-level spying networks because the law says community-based organizations may be called upon to provide intelligence.
Opposition leader Julio Borges called the decree a "wake-up call" and said it "aims to spy on citizens." He said the opposition will protest the measures.
The socialist leader denied the law would infringe on freedoms, saying it falls into "a framework of great respect for human rights."
Chavez, who often accuses the United States of espionage, said he was revamping Venezuela's intelligence services to thwart U.S. spies.
In 2006, Chavez expelled a U.S. military attache he accused of spying. The same year, Washington named a career CIA agent as "mission manager" to oversee intelligence on Cuba and Venezuela.
During a televised address on Sunday, Chavez said the law would help prevent military rebellions like the 2002 coup that briefly removed him from power. The Venezuelan leader has long accused Washington of orchestrating the short-lived putsch — allegations that U.S. official deny.
Human rights monitor Correa compared the decree to the U.S. Patriot Act, passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, that makes it makes it easier for the U.S. government to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists' phone calls and e-mails without court permission.
Chavez himself calls the Patriot Act "a dictatorial law that they imposed on the people of the United States."
Venezuela's new law will replace the Disip secret police and Military Intelligence Directorate with four new agencies, two under the Justice Ministry and two under military command.
Many Venezuelans distrust their country's shadowy intelligence agencies, whose members have been accused over the years of crimes ranging from executions to obstruction of justice.
Chavez opponents say they fear eroding freedoms, but most also acknowledge that Venezuela remains far from a tightly monitored society like Cuba or North Korea.
Chavez's government maintains links to community activist groups and also has set up neighborhood-level "communal councils" that decide how to spend government funds for community projects. Critics fear such groups could become like Cuba's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, which often are a forum for neighbors to snoop on each other and report suspicious activities to authorities.
Justice Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin argued at a news conference on Monday that all Venezuelans have an obligation to resolve crimes: "If you were a witness to a crime and you hide it, then you are an accomplice to that crime."
But constitutional law attorney Alberto Arteaga Sanchez noted that Chavez "is constantly calling opposition leaders coup-plotters and pro-imperialists.
"And that makes me suspect this law may be used as a weapon to silence and intimidate the opposition," Sanchez said.