UN investigators accuse Venezuelan government of crimes against humanity

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File photo: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gives a press conference at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela. March 12, 2020.
File photo: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gives a press conference at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela. March 12, 2020.   -  Copyright  Matias Delacroix/AP

Independent experts for the UN’s top human rights body accused the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday of crimes against humanity.

They highlighted cases of torture and killings allegedly carried out by security forces who used techniques like electric shocks and asphyxiation.

In a scathing, in-depth report commissioned by the Human Rights Council, the experts said the people responsible for extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and other crimes must be held to account to provide justice for untold thousands of victims and to ensure such crimes don't happen again.

The findings of the report are likely to ratchet up pressure on Maduro's government, which has overseen a country in tatters with runaway inflation, a violent crackdown and an exodus of millions of Venezuelans who have fled to neighbouring countries to escape the turmoil since he took power in 2013.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza lashed out saying the report written by an alleged fact-finding mission was actually led by a group of nations set on attacking Venezuela.

“This report plagued by falsehoods was drawn up from afar without relying on rigorous methodology by a phantom mission directed against Venezuela by governments subordinate to Washington,” Arreaza said on Twitter.

The experts say they delved into nearly 3,000 cases, looked at more than 5,000 killings and concluded that Maduro and his defence and interior ministers were aware of the crimes committed by Venezuelan security forces and intelligence agencies.

They further alleged that high-level authorities had both power and oversight over the forces and agencies, making the top officials responsible. Venezuelan authorities were not immediately available for comment.

Critics have already accused Maduro’s government of crimes against humanity but the 411-page report represents one of the most extensive looks at recent rights abuses in Venezuela, drawing upon interviews with victims, relatives, witnesses, police, officials and judges, plus videos, satellite imagery and social media content. 

The authors said they did not receive responses from the government.

Under Article 7 of the UN treaty that established the International Criminal Court, a crime against humanity is defined as an act committed as part of a “widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population.”

The experts said the violations in Venezuela took place amid a breakdown of democratic institutions, rule of law and judicial independence in the country, often during crackdowns on protesters. 

They added the “vast majority” of unlawful killings by security forces have not resulted in prosecutions and “at no stage have officials with command responsibility been brought to justice."

The report found that members of the Special Action Forces, a feared division of the national police service, and another unit were responsible for over half of the thousands of wrongful deaths that the experts examined.

Superiors had the authority to grant officers a “green light to kill,” the report's authors wrote, citing a training video that showed officers being encouraged to “kill criminals without compassion.”

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, who travelled to Venezuela last year and met with Maduro, has urged him to dissolve the special forces and to hold the division's leaders accountable. Her requests have gone ignored.

The experts said they had recorded the names of more than 45 intelligence and counter-intelligence officers “who should be investigated and prosecuted” — without making them public. 

The names could be made available to International Criminal Court prosecutors who in 2018 opened a preliminary investigation into allegations of abuses in Venezuela.

Venezuela is a member of the court, meaning that crimes there could fall under the ICC’s jurisdiction.

Maduro’s government has come under increasing political pressure from the United States and dozens of other countries which consider politician Juan Guaidó the legitimate leader of Venezuela.

The leader has called it a plot to overthrow him so the U.S. can exploit Venezuela’s vast oil wealth.

Venezuela was once wealthy, sitting atop the world’s largest oil reserves, but it has tumbled into an economic and political crisis. 

An estimated 5 million Venezuelans have fled, escaping dangerous streets, poverty and hunger. Its inability to produce gasoline has forced it to import fuel from Iran amid deep shortages that have sparked frustration among drivers stuck in line to fill up for hours, or even days.