This case – in which Vannesa Rosales, a social worker and schoolteacher, was prosecuted for assisting a child living in extreme poverty in terminating her pregnancy after being raped – is emblematic of the utter failure of the Venezuelan authorities to protect the rights of women and girls. Alarmingly, the authorities weaponized the criminal justice system against a human rights defender who stepped in to assist a young girl access the healthcare that should have been provided by the State. The criminal proceedings against Ms. Rosales constituted an abuse of process, reflecting patterns of state harassment of human rights advocates as well as impunity for sexual violence and violations of the rights to life, health and non-discrimination.
The American Bar Association Center for Human Rights monitored the proceedings against Ms. Rosales as part of the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch initiative. Ms. Rosales was first arrested on October 12, 2020 in Mérida, Venezuela on charges related to providing misoprostol to a 13-year-old former student (KS), upon the request of KS’s mother. KS’s pregnancy was the result of rape. At the initial appearance hearing, the judge ratcheted up the charges against Ms. Rosales, including adding charges under a law aimed at combating organized crime. Ms. Rosales spent three months in pretrial detention and – only after a public advocacy campaign put pressure on authorities – was then released to house arrest, where she remained for nearly seven months until the first hearing in her case on July 21, 2021. At the hearing, the prosecution dropped most of the charges against Ms. Rosales in exchange for her pleading guilty to one criminal charge with a penalty enhancement. Although that offense carried a sentence of imprisonment, she was sentenced to community service in accordance with the plea agreement.
Multiple factors strongly indicate that Ms. Rosales was targeted because of her work on sexual and reproductive rights. These include due process violations, delays in the case, the judge’s reference to items associated with Ms. Rosales’s advocacy work in the judicial reasoning on the requalification of charges and pretrial detention, and the judge’s unjustified decision to add new charges and severe penalty enhancements, including under laws aimed at combating organized crime. Ms. Rosales’s lawyers were also the target of state harassment, seemingly for their work representing her and other women’s rights defenders. Meanwhile, KS’s alleged rapist has not been apprehended or charged.
This case demonstrates not only Venezuela’s failure to uphold its international obligations but also the ways in which young girls in vulnerable situations like KS are particularly impacted by Venezuela’s restrictive laws. Because of the complete lack of available healthcare – in large part because of Venezuela’s restrictive laws criminalizing abortion and the associated stigma around reproductive care – KS and her mother had very few options when seeking to terminate a potentially life-threatening pregnancy that resulted from KS being repeatedly raped. They were thus forced to seek clandestine assistance from one of their few sources of support, Ms. Rosales. State authorities then compounded the girl’s trauma by interrogating her alone at the hospital and initiating criminal prosecutions against Ms. Rosales and the child’s mother.
More broadly, Venezuela’s legislative framework, which criminalizes abortion with almost no exceptions, violates international standards on the rights to life and health and the prohibition against discrimination, and contributes to the stigmatization of women who seek reproductive care and the activists who assist them. Ms. Rosales’s arrest and detention has already had a chilling effect on the activities of organizations and feminist networks that assist vulnerable women and girls like KS, putting more lives at risk. Venezuela must reform its legal framework and policies and bring them in line with international standards.