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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

UN slams 'widespread and systematic use of excessive force' in Venezuela

An investigation conducted in June and July described "a picture of widespread and systematic use of excessive force and arbitrary detentions against demonstrators in Venezuela"

Venezuelan pro-government activists rally to express their support to the Constituent Assembly in Caracas, on August 7, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Federico Parra
Venezuelan pro-government activists rally to express their support to the Constituent Assembly in Caracas, on August 7, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Federico Parra

Geneva // The UN decried Tuesday "widespread and systematic use of excessive force" against demonstrators in Venezuela, saying security forces and pro-government groups were responsible for at least 73 protester deaths.

Presenting the preliminary findings from an investigation conducted in June and July, the UN rights office described "a picture of widespread and systematic use of excessive force and arbitrary detentions against demonstrators in Venezuela."

"Witness accounts suggest that security forces, mainly the National Guard, the National Police and local police forces, have systematically used disproportionate force to instil fear, crush dissent, and to prevent demonstrators from assembling, rallying and reaching public institutions to present petitions," the rights office said.

"Government authorities have rarely condemned such incidents," it stressed.

Venezuela, which is suffering from an acute economic crisis marked by shortages of basic goods, has experienced four months of street demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro that have killed 125 people.

After receiving no response to repeated requests for access to Venezuela to investigate the situation in the country, UN rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein deployed a team of human rights officers to monitor the country remotely.

The investigators conducted 135 interviews between June 6 and July 31 with victims and their families, witnesses, civil society organisations, journalists, lawyers and doctors, among others.

"Since the wave of demonstrations began in April, there has been a clear pattern of excessive force used against protesters," Mr Al Hussien said.

"Several thousand people have been arbitrarily detained, many reportedly subjected to ill-treatment and even torture, while several hundred have been brought before military rather than civilian courts," he said, stressing that "these patterns show no signs of abating."

According to the preliminary findings, security forces were allegedly responsible for at least 46 of the protester deaths, while pro-government armed groups were behind 27.

It remained unclear who was behind the remaining deaths, the rights office said.

At the same time, nearly 2,000 people have been injured, while more than 5,050 people have been arbitrarily arrested, with over 1,000 reportedly still in detention, it said.

The rights office also decried "credible reports of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by security forces of such detainees, amounting in several cases to torture," saying tactics included "electric shocks, beatings.., suffocation with gas, and threats of killings, and in some cases threats of sexual violence."

Mr Al Hussein warned that "these violations have occurred amid the breakdown of the rule of law in Venezuela, with constant attacks by the Government against the National Assembly and the Attorney-General's Office."

"The responsibility for the human rights violations we are recording lies at the highest levels of government," he said.

The report came after Venezuela's top military brass appeared on state TV late on Monday to show support for Mr Maduro, as the government hunted rebel leaders who raided an army base and stole weapons.

Surrounded by three tanks with raised barrels and hundreds of soldiers, the defence minister and head of the armed forces, General Vladimir Padrino, insisted that the armed forces were "united and with very high morale."

The attack on the base in Valencia by 20 men in uniform fueled fears the country's worsening crisis could tip into armed conflict.

Gen Padrino said that ex-National Guard captain, Juan Carlos Caguaripano, and a former lieutenant, Jefferson Gabriel Garcia, were behind the raid.

Venezuela's opposition has repeatedly urged the military to abandon Mr Maduro.

The crisis is rooted in the collapse of Venezuela's economy due to a plunge in global oil prices. Public anger is spreading as people struggle for basics like food and medicine.

Mr Maduro, however, blames an economic "war" that he says is fomented by the right-wing opposition in cahoots with the United States.