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CARACAS, Venezuela – Jhonny Reyes' son left the house to join students in an anti-government protest a few days ago, one of hundreds of thousands of angry people who have flooded Venezuela's streets in demonstrations often blocked by police and soldiers. He wound up in front of a military tribunal, accused of inciting rebellion and facing up to 30 years behind bars.
Reyes, who is blind, found himself pleading for information outside Punto Fijo naval base with relatives of 17 other young adults detained in the same demonstration in the western city of Coro. Many had obtained private attorneys, but none was allowed inside to defend the detainees, mostly students studying music and medicine. Instead, the youths were given a public defender and ordered transferred to a military jail near Caracas, a more than six-hour drive away.
"What I can't understand is why they're putting him in a military tribunal when he's a civilian," Reyes said, his voice hoarse with exasperation.
Human rights activists say more than 250 detained protesters have been put before military justice over the last week — a sudden upsurge in use of a practice they say violates the constitution, which limits military courts to "offenses of a military nature." Some lawyers and opposition leaders put the number far higher.
"The growing use of military tribunals to judge civilians demonstrates the absolute determination of Venezuelan authorities to asphyxiate the growing protests and terrorize any person who contemplates the possibility of expressing opinions," said Erika Guevara Rosas Americas director for Amnesty International.
President Nicolas Maduro's administration says the courts are part of emergency measures necessary to ensure national security against what they decry as foreign-backed attempts to violently oust the socialist government from power.
"Security agencies are deployed in Carabobo to find those responsible for instigating rebellion and crime," wrote Antonio Jose Benavides Torres, commander of Venezuela's Bolivarian National Guard, on Twitter after a week of looting and protests in the central Venezuelan state, where the bulk of the military tribunals thus far have taken place.
Many rights activists see the increasing reliance on military tribunals to try civilian protesters as an echo of the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, when military dictatorships in Chile, Brazil and elsewhere bypassed civilian jurisdictions to prosecute political opponents accused of being national security threats tied to international communism.
"The governments of Latin America have experienced this in the past, we have fought against impunity and we have said, 'Never again,'" said Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States. "We cannot remain silent in the face of such obvious abuse of the basic human rights of Venezuelans."
Venezuela recently announced plans to withdraw from the Washington-based group, accusing it of unjustly intervening in the nation's domestic affairs.
At least 36 people have been killed in more than a month of protests demanding new elections and in anger over triple-digit inflation, vast food and medical supply shortages and soaring crime. The demonstrations have frequently ended with police or troops launching rubber bullets and plumes of tear gas at protesters, some of whom have thrown rocks and even human excrement back at police.
Hundreds have been injured and more than 1,300 detained.
Some opposition leaders believe the use of the military tribunals reflects Maduro's weakening grip on power and a desire to circumvent someone who's become a surprising irritant: Venezuela's semi-autonomous chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who has shown signs of unusual independence.
She was the first official to denounce a March ruling by the loyalist Supreme Court that stripped the opposition congress of its last powers, calling it a "rupture" of the constitutional order, helping prompt the court to back off the ruling.
While many officials have indiscriminately denounced the demonstrators, she ordered at least 38 detained protesters to be freed for lack of evidence. On Tuesday, her office requested that 14 people in Zulia, another state where demonstrators have been submitted to military tribunals, be processed in civilian courts.
Nearly all of those facing military courts face the same two charges, according to attorneys: Inciting rebelling and vilifying military officials. Most of those cases so far are in the northern state of Carabobo, where looters took off with crates of beer and boxes of pasta last week and one protester was killed. Military officials have activated an emergency protocol there known as Plan Zamora, few details of which have been made public.
Amnesty International said Wednesday more than 250 people have been detained and placed in the hands of military justice. Alfredo Romero, executive director of Foro Penal, a lawyers' cooperative that defends activists, told National Assembly members Tuesday that 118 people in Carabobo alone have been put before military tribunals, where he said nearly a dozen soldiers armed with automatic weapons are posted in the courtroom as cases are heard. He said one man who had stolen some ham had been charged with inciting rebellion and insulting officials.
"He wasn't charged with robbery," Romero said.
In Falcon, a state west of Caracas along the nation's coast, 19 young adults, most between the ages of 18 and 21, were detained Friday in the capital city of Coro following a protest near Francisco Miranda University, where many of them are students.
Eleyker Polanco, 19, Reyes' son, is not a student and suffers from a mental disability, his father said. Nonetheless, he was prompted to take to the streets after watching the struggles of his family and others. A neighbor recently died from malnutrition, and despite going blind after a motorcycle accident more than a year ago, Reyes said he has been unable to purchase a cane. His son decided to go out and protest because, "This is desperation."
After his detention, the family found a private attorney and waited outside the naval base where he and the others were transported by bus Sunday. About 100 relatives were gathered there Tuesday afternoon, seeking information.
A wall of national guardsmen in green uniforms blocked them from approaching. Reyes cried out, his blind eyes squinting as relatives tried to hold him up.
"Please," he pleaded. "I need to know something about my son!"
He was eventually allowed in to visit his son briefly, only to find that the youth had already gone before a judge, without the presence of the family's attorney. Though he couldn't see his son, Reyes could feel his fear. When they embraced, his son was shaking.
Associated Press writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.