CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela "systematically" abused anti-government protesters this year, two rights groups said on Wednesday, including through beatings, firing tear gas canisters in closed areas and forcing detainees to eat food tainted with excrement.
Unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro faced four months of near-daily protests asking for early elections, humanitarian aid to combat food and medicine shortages, respect for the opposition-led congress, and freedom for jailed activists.
Demonstrators say heavy-handed National Guard soldiers clamped down on their right to protest, while Maduro says his administration faced a U.S.-backed "armed insurgency."
More than 120 people died in the unrest, with victims including demonstrators, government supporters, security officials, and bystanders.
In a joint report, New York-based Human Rights Watch and Venezuela-based Penal Forum documented 88 cases between April and September, from excessive use of force during marches to protest against arbitrary detentions. Around 5,400 people were detained, with at least 757 prosecuted in military courts, the report said.
"The widespread vicious abuses against government opponents in Venezuela, including egregious cases of torture, and the absolute impunity for the attackers suggests government responsibility at the highest levels," said Chilean lawyer Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
Venezuela's Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
ELECTRIC SHOCKS, BEATINGS
In one case cited, intelligence agents allegedly hanged a 34-year-old government critic from the ceiling and gave him electric shocks as they interrogated him. The man, whose name was not revealed, was ultimately released and left Venezuela.
In another case, a 32-year-old detained during a protest in Carabobo state was allegedly beaten for hours by National Guard soldiers who also threatened to rape his daughter. He said officials also fired tear gas into his cell.
Others interviewed recounted being handcuffed to a metal bench, hit with sticks, and witnessing a man being raped with a broomstick. At least 15 detainees in Carabobo said officials forced them to eat human excrement mixed in with uncooked pasta.
The government failed to acknowledge such violations, the report said, adding that instead officials "often downplayed the abuses or issued implausible, blanket denials."
Maduro's government says Human Rights Watch is in league with a Washington-funded conspiracy to sabotage socialism in Latin America. Rights activists are in league with the opposition and compliant foreign media, officials say, and downplay opposition violence, including setting a man on fire during a demonstration and targeting police with explosives.
The two rights groups said there were cases of protesters hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces, but that abuses by authorities went far beyond attempts to quell unrest.
(Reporting by Leon Wietfeld; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Susan Thomas)