Venezuela expels U.S. human rights campaigners

Senior officials of the U.S. based Human Rights Watch group have been expelled from Venezuela after releasing a report crticial of the government of President Hugo Chavez.

Venezuela's government expelled senior members of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch late Thursday after the group released a report saying President Hugo Chavez's government was undercutting democracy and fundamental rights in the country.

Officials in Caracas said Human Rights Watch Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco had  made unacceptable remarks against the country's institutions.

"We aren't going to tolerate any foreigner coming here to sully the dignity" of Venezuela's institutions, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro told state television.

He said Vivanco and a Human Rights Watch deputy director, Daniel Wilkinson, were forced to leave the country on the earliest available flight.

Vivanco "has violated the constitution" and Venezuela's laws, Maduro said.

Both human rights campaigners had been acting at the behest of the U.S. government, the foreign minister said.

In a report released earlier Thursday, Human Rights Watch said Chavez's government had used a 2002 coup by opposition leaders and army officers as "a pretext for a wide range of government policies that have undercut the human rights protections" laid out in the constitution.

Coup attempt fails

Chavez was elected in 1998 and won a landslide in 2000. His policies of nationalizing industry, particularly oil wells, proved unpopular with the middle classes and hundreds of thousands took to the streets, prompting the army to displace the charismatic former officer in April 2002.

That takeover, which lasted just a few days, was given Washington's blessing. After Chavez returned to power, he intensified his anti-American rhetoric and, according to Human Rights Watch, he gutted the constitution's protections for civil and fundamental rights of citizens, particularly those of political opponents.

Chavez had "weakened democratic institutions and human rights guarantees" while trying to sideline the opposition and consolidate power, said Vivanco, before he was expelled.

The New York-based group said Chavez "has encouraged his subordinates to engage in discrimination by routinely denouncing his critics as antidemocratic conspirators and coup-mongers — regardless of whether or not they had any connection to the 2002 coup."

With files from the Associated Press