ELLIOTT ABRAMS, U.S. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR VENEZUELA
SEPTEMBER 16, 2020
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you so much and good afternoon, everybody. I know we’re having this call right after we did the press conference with the Secretary and we have another briefing later today, so apologies that we’re piling all of you up today. We’re going to try to allow for as much time as possible for Q&A (inaudible) many of you have it. But just want to reiterate, of course, that this is an on-the-record briefing with Special Representative for Venezuela and now also for Iran Elliott Abrams. While this is an on-the-record briefing, the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call, please.
This is actually Elliott’s first press briefing since he assumed both roles. He will of course begin with an introductory statement and then we’ll turn over to your questions. Just a reminder, you can press 1 and then 0 at any point in time on (inaudible) to enter the question queue.
So with that, I’ll go ahead and turn it over to Special Representative Abrams.
MR ABRAMS: Thanks, Morgan. I want to begin with a comment on Venezuela and the fraudulent election for the National Assembly now scheduled for December 6th, and then turn to Iran.
None of the basic conditions for free elections exist in Venezuela. Opposition parties have been stolen and regime agents appointed to run them; the national elections commission is completely under regime control; freedom of the press does not exist; repression and intimidation by the police and colectivo gangs continues. There are not reliable and tested voting machines in Venezuela. The rules of the game were recently changed by the regime, which created over 100 new National Assembly seats and changed voting district lines. I could go on. And this is precisely why Interim President Juan Guaido and a coalition of 37 parties has said they would not legitimize this fraud by participating in the election. Needless to say, those conditions will not be cured merely by postponement; fraudulent elections are no less fraudulent if held a few months later.
A cornerstone of our policy in Venezuela has been to support the diverse and broad array of democratic actors fighting for liberty and democracy there. To those who have decided to participate in the National Assembly elections, our message is that you have a special obligation to demand the necessary, internationally accepted conditions for free and fair elections, and to speak openly about the repression and corruption of the Maduro regime.
We are able to distinguish between democratic actors who differ on strategy and people who work with the regime to undermine democracy. We will not hesitate to apply the full force of U.S. sanctions to the latter group, as we have been doing in the last few years. To all Venezuelans who struggle for free elections and a restoration of democracy, we continue to pledge our full support. And as you know, Secretary Pompeo will be visiting all of Venezuela’s neighbors – Colombia, Brazil, and Guyana – in a trip that starts tomorrow.
I would draw your attention to the report of the United Nations Human Rights Council today by the UN’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela. This United Nations mission, quote, “found reasonable grounds to believe that Venezuelan authorities and security forces have since 2014 planned and executed serious human rights violations, some of which” – still quoting – “some of which – including arbitrary killings and the systematic use of torture – amount to crimes against humanity,” close quote. And then in an extraordinary statement for a UN report, it says, quote, “the mission has reasonable grounds to believe that both the president and the ministers of people’s power for interior relations, justice and peace, and for defense, ordered or contributed to the commission of these crimes documented in this report,” close quote. These crimes, says the UN, crimes against humanity, start at the top.
Now, we’re aware of reports of additional tankers heading to Venezuela from Iran, and that’s another reminder of how Maduro has destroyed Venezuela’s economy and infrastructure through incompetence and mismanagement and corruption and created the need to import gasoline into this oil-rich country. The installed crude oil refinery capacity in Venezuela is 1,300,000 barrels a day. But that corruption and neglect have reduced actual gasoline refined to less than 5 percent of that. So the regime turned to another international pariah, Iran, shipping it gold to buy gasoline.
As you know, virtually all UN sanctions on Iran will come back into place this weekend at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturday the 19th. The arms embargo will now be re-imposed indefinitely and other restrictions will return, including the ban on Iran engaging in enrichment and reprocessing-related activities, the prohibition on ballistic missile testing and development, and sanctions on the transfer of nuclear and missile-related technologies to Iran.
The Secretary said just a couple of hours ago that we expect all UN member states to implement the UN sanctions fully and respect the process and obligations to uphold these sanctions. We’ll have a lot more to say on this, in detail, on Monday.
This is a good moment to reflect on the almost religious commitment of some countries to that nuclear deal. But five years of JCPOA meetings have not moderated Iran’s tactics or choices at all. It’s time for peace-loving nations to recognize this reality and join us in imposing sanctions on Iran. It is astonishing that anyone would think or have thought it sensible to allow the arms embargo on Iran to expire next month, given that regime’s role in destabilizing Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon and its continuing support for terrorism.
I want to close with the story of Navid Afkari, the young Iranian wrestling champion. In the summer of 2018, Navid joined a peaceful protest along with his two brothers. The regime arrested all three of them and tortured them into confessing for a murder that took place when they were in a completely different part of town. The regime wanted to make an example of them and, as you know, executed Navid last weekend.
This is a terrible reminder of the brutal and despotic regime with which we are dealing. I would remind you that yesterday Siamak Namazi celebrated his 49th birthday in the notorious Evin Prison. That marked 1,800 days – 1,800 days since the Iranian regime first took him hostage. Siamak, his father Baquer, and Morad Tahbaz remain innocent victims of the Iranian regime and we work every single day to gain their release.
Thanks, and I’m happy to take questions on either Venezuela or Iran.