The international human rights group said in the 133-page report the Chavez government has targeted the judiciary, the media and human rights activists to intimidate, censor and prosecute its critics.
"For years, President Chavez and his followers have been building a system in which the government has free rein to threaten and punish Venezuelans who interfere with their political agenda," Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a release. "Today that system is firmly entrenched, and the risks for judges, journalists and rights defenders are greater than they've ever been under Chavez."
Since HRW's last major report on Venezuela, in September 2008, "the human rights situation in the country has become even more precarious," the release said.
The prospect of reprisals has "undercut the ability of judges to adjudicate politically sensitive cases and forced journalists and rights defenders to weigh the consequences of disseminating information and opinions critical of the government," the release said.
After 2010 elections reduced the Chavez majority in congress, HRW said, he and his supporters in the National Assembly changed a law on the process of appointing Supreme Court justices and packed the court before newly elected opposition lawmakers took their seats.
The report also points to the prosecution of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni after she granted conditional liberty to a prominent government critic who had been in prison almost three years awaiting trial. Afiuni's arrest and prolonged imprisonment have had what the release called "a powerful impact on lower court judges, who fear being criminally prosecuted if they issue rulings that could upset the Chavez government."
The media have been targeted as well.
In December 2010, the pro-Chavez majority in the National Assembly amended a law to apply restrictions on free speech in the media to the Internet and added new restrictions, including a ban on transmitting messages that "foment anxiety in the public." The government-controlled telecommunications agency, CONATEL, was given greater powers to sanction TV and radio broadcasters, as well as Web sites.
The government has sanctioned or censored media outlets for critical reporting on the government, the report said.
The HRW release said the government also has "intensified its efforts to marginalize the country's human rights defenders by repeatedly accusing them of seeking to undermine Venezuelan democracy with the support of the United States government."
Chavez supporters have filed criminal complaints against non-governmental organizations for receiving foreign funding and the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that individuals or organizations that received foreign funding could be prosecuted for "treason," with a sentence of up to 15 years in prison, the report said.