CARACAS (Reuters) – Carlos Julio Rojas, 36, says he has been detained four times in the last five years for demanding that the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro improve basic services such as power and water in the capital.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro speaks during an announcement promoting Carvativir, what Venezuela’s government says is a miracle cure for coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Caracas, Venezuela January 24, 2021. Picture taken January 24, 2021. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Rojas, who leads the non-profit group Front for Defense of Northern Caracas, last July spent 10 hours in a jail cell for joining a protest of retirees who were seeking better pensions.

“There is legal intimidation … or harassment by armed groups or state security forces that directly impede efforts to file complaints and to protest,” Rojas said in an interview.

The information ministry and the chief prosecutor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Maduro’s government rejects accusations of widespread rights abuses, saying it is the victim of a foreign-led smear campaign.

A report released earlier this year showed a sharp spike in attacks on Venezuelan non-profit groups in 2020, including the arrest of five workers from an organization that provides support for people with HIV.

Human rights group Center for Defenders and Justice (CDJ) registered 99 security incidents against activists ranging from arrests to threats to raids on offices, according to a report released on Tuesday. In January 2020, the group reported only 10 such incidents.

Civil society leaders say the harassment is part of efforts by Maduro to consolidate political control.

The situation is most difficult for those outside the capital, said Liliana Ortega of human rights group COFAVIC.

Ortega pointed the case of the five members of the HIV support group, Blue Positive, based in the western state of Zulia. They were detained by military intelligence agents on charges of criminal association and money laundering as part of a program that supports people in a poor neighborhood.

The five were released this month but must attend court hearings every 30 days.

“The government is trying to replace this uncomfortable civil society (and) neutralize activists who are … independent,” said Rafael Uzcategui, coordinator of human rights group Provea.

Reporting by Vivian Sequera; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

Source: Reuters