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Opposition supporters clash with Venezuela's National Guards during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government outside the Supreme Court of Justice in Caracas, Venezuela, March 31, 2017. © 2017 Reuters © 2017 Reuters

(Washington, D.C.) The announcement by the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor that her office will open a preliminary examination of the situation in Venezuela escalates pressure on Venezuelan authorities to stop human rights violations and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said today. In two crackdowns, in 2014 and 2017, Venezuelan security forces have committed systematic abuses against critics, including torture.

On February 8, 2018, the ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, announced that her office is opening a preliminary examination to analyze alleged crimes committed in Venezuela going back to April 2017. The prosecutor will evaluate allegations of excessive force against demonstrators and the detention of thousands of actual or perceived opponents, including cases in which they have said they experienced serious abuse or ill-treatment in detention. The prosecutor’s office said it had also received reports that some protesters resorted to violence, resulting in death or injury for some members of the security forces.

Venezuela protest

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“By opening a preliminary examination, the ICC prosecutor is sending a powerful message that her office is closely tracking the Maduro government’s egregious abuses,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The Venezuelan judiciary has allowed impunity to flourish, but depending on the ICC’s decisions there may be another path for Venezuelan victims of abuse to have their day in court.”

The situation in Venezuela, an ICC member country, joins a list of several others under examination by the ICC prosecutor’s office, including in Colombia, Nigeria, and Palestine. The prosecutor also announced on February 8 that her office will open a preliminary examination to analyze alleged abuses committed in the context of the “war on drugs” in the Philippines.

The aim of the preliminary examination is to determine whether or not the ICC should proceed with a full investigation, which would require authorization by a panel of the court’s judges. As a court of last resort, the ICC prosecutor faces a high threshold. Her office will need to carefully consider whether the court’s requirements are met, Human Rights Watch said. 

In 2017, the Venezuelan government systematically used brutal treatment, including torture, against anti-government protesters and political opponents. In the streets, security force personnel used disproportionate force against demonstrators, injuring hundreds. They detained more than 5,400 people between April and July. Members of security forces have beaten detainees severely and tortured them with electric shocks, asphyxiation, sexual assault, and other vicious techniques. Authorities have also arbitrarily prosecuted more than 750 civilians in military courts.

Human Rights Watch research supports the conclusion that the abuses were part of a systematic practice by Venezuelan security forces. While this was not the first crackdown on dissent under Maduro—security forces have repressed demonstrations and arbitrarily prosecuted critics in 2014—the scope and severity of the 2017 repression reached levels unseen in Venezuela in recent memory.

The Human Rights Watch research shows that the abuses were not isolated cases or the result of excesses by rogue security force members. Instead, various security forces committed widespread abuses repeatedly over a period of several months in multiple locations across the country, including in controlled environments such as military installations.

Venezuelan officials do not appear to have taken any steps to prevent abuses and have done nothing to hold those responsible for serious violations to account. Instead, they have often downplayed the abuses or issued implausible blanket denials. 

The UN high commissioner for human rights said in September that “crimes against humanity may have been committed” in Venezuela and called for an international investigation.

Human Rights Watch made its November 2017 report on recent abuses available to the ICC prosecutor’s office. 

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