Venezuelan government has ordered Human Rights Watch (HRW) director for the Americas Jose Miguel Vivanco and his deputy to leave the country "immediately", saying his criticism was part of a plot by the US against the country.
"Chavez's expulsion of Human Rights Watch's team is further evidence of Venezuela's descent into intolerance," Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW, said in a statement.
"Chavez may have kicked out the messenger, but he has only re-enforced the message ­ civil liberties in Venezuela are under attack," Roth noted.
Just hours before his expulsion Friday, Vivanco had made public a report that criticized Chavez's human rights record. Venezuelan authorities complained that the report constituted an "attack" on the country's institutions.
A Venezuelan foreign ministry statement reproduced in the official news agency ABN noted that Vivanco "disrespected norms in the constitution and the institutions" of the country and should therefore leave.
"The Venezuelan state has a policy of enforcing respect for national sovereignty and of guaranteeing the defence of the institutions and the people in the face of international attacks that respond to interests linked to and financed by the government of the United States," said the statement signed by Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro and Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami.
The rights group complained about the way that its two officials were expelled and flew to the Brazilian metropolis of Sao Paulo Friday morning.
"Vivanco and (deputy Daniel) Wilkinson were intercepted on the night of Sep 18 at their hotel in Caracas and handed a letter accusing them of anti-state activities. Their cell phones were confiscated and their requests to be allowed to contact their embassies were denied," the organization complain.
"They were put into cars, taken to the airport and put on a plane to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where they landed (Friday) morning," it added.
Thursday, HRW released a report titled A Decade under Chavez, which said the Venezuelan president had weakened democracy in the South American country. It noted that Chavez's leftist government was politically intolerant, practiced discrimination and ignored the separation of powers.
"The Venezuelan government under President Chavez has tolerated, encouraged, and engaged in wide-ranging acts of discrimination against political opponents and critics," the report said.
The situation deteriorated in particular after a failed coup in 2002 by a conservative-military alliance against Chavez, who has been in office since February 1999.
In the attempts to control the opposition and consolidate its power, the Chavez government weakened the democratic institutions and human rights guarantees in Venezuela, Vivanco said.
The report caused outrage in Caracas, with Saul Ortega, deputy president of the federal parliament, calling Vivanco an "idiot".
It was based on lies, he stressed, adding that a strong democracy existed in Venezuela with the institutions well grounded as they "respected the interests of the people."
HRW said Chavez neutralized the judiciary's independence by increasing the number of judges at the Supreme Court to 32 and filling the new seats with political allies.
"Since this takeover occurred, the court's response to government measures that threaten fundamental rights has typically been one of passivity and acquiescence," the report said.
Venezuela may not be the country with the worst human rights record in the region, Vivanco said. Nonetheless, he said political violence and impunity were a cause for grave concerns.