On Sept. 15, a United Nations-backed fact-finding mission published a report accusing the Venezuelan government of committing crimes against humanity.
The 411-page report, which mainly reviewed cases that occurred between 2014 and 2018, alleged that President Nicolas Maduro and other high-ranking officials were involved in systemic human rights abuses of those who opposed his government. The officials either had knowledge of the crimes or gave direct orders and supplied resources for them to occur.
The abuses included killings, torture, asphyxiation and sexual violence, including rape.
Operations for People’s Liberation (OLP), the Venezuelan government’s anti-crime initiative launched in 2015, was officially phased out by mid-2017, according to the report. But extrajudicial killings by security forces allegedly continued. The report documented that two security forces – the Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigation Corps (CICP) and the Special Action Forces (FAES) of the National Bolivarian Police (PNB) – were responsible for 59 percent of all the killings by security forces that were reviewed. The report said the FAES should be dismantled and the chain of command held accountable.
The day following the report’s release, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza dismissed the findings.
He said on Twitter that the report was “plagued with falsehoods, prepared remotely, without any methodological rigor, by a phantom mission directed against Venezuela and controlled by governments subordinate to Washington…”
His statement is misleading.
On Sept. 27, 2019, the U.N. Human Rights Council established an independent international fact-finding mission on Venezuela for one year to assess human rights violations allegedly committed there since 2014. That was the year widespread protests and demonstrations began, calling for Maduro to step down as violence, inflation and shortages of basic goods worsened.
As The New York Times reported, despite the Venezuelan government’s increasing cooperation with U.N.'s office for human rights over the past year – allowing visits to prisons, interviews with detainees and promising to investigate allegations of extrajudicial killings and deaths of protesters – the government offered no such cooperation for the fact-finding report.
The three members of the fact-finding mission were not allowed to visit Venezuela and received no response to requests for meetings or information. The mission faced travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, too.
As a result, the U.N. team relied on 274 remote interviews (via secure telephone and video) with victims, witnesses, family members, former state officials, lawyers, nongovernmental organizations and members of the security services (both former and serving). The team also drew on satellite imagery, social media, reports and articles and other open source information.
The report employed a “reasonable grounds” standard for concluding that crimes likely occurred. That is lower than the requirement for an indictment or criminal charge, but consistent with other fact-finding missions and sufficient to trigger further investigations.
The 223 cases examined for the report were based either on at least one source of direct information – which was also independently corroborated one or more other credible sources – or on multiple accounts from victims and witnesses.
The report concluded that “these crimes were coordinated and committed pursuant to state policies, with the knowledge or direct support of commanding officers and senior government officials.” And it is just the latest in a series of such findings over the past six years.
In May 2014, Human Rights Watch said it had strong evidence proving “a pattern of serious abuse” by Venezuelan security forces – including denial of medical care, threat of death or rape and physical abuse of more than 150 people.
Another report, by Venezuela’s Andres Bello Catholic University, alleged the government hid evidence of torture and human rights violations of detainees during the anti-government protests in 2014. Tactics included the use of Public Defense to avoid complaints, omissions by judges during hearings, abduction, torture and pressure on doctors.
The university team gathered information through reviews of judicial files, interviews with detainees, testimonies with legal and medical professionals and analysis of documents from human rights organizations in Venezuela, a similar methodology to the report criticized by Arreaza.
During protests in 2017, after the Venezuela’s Supreme Court issued a ruling dissolving the parliament, a joint report of Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum found that at least 314 people were victims of human rights violations by security forces and armed pro-government groups (known as colectivos). They concluded that “the abuses have been part of a systematic practice by the Venezuelan security forces,” consistent with findings from an August 2017 report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Villca Fernandez, an opposition activist who was arrested in early 2016 – and freed in June 2018 – told El Nuevo Herald newspaper in a July 2018 interview that torture was a frequent tactic used to break prisoners’ spirits, including the use of electricity on prisoner’s testicles, ankles and behind their ears. Fernandez himself wasn’t tortured but said he either saw or heard others, which affected him psychologically. “You realize how far they can go and what they are capable of doing,” he said.
Some of the cases investigated in the latest report were previously reported by human rights organizations, including that of Rafael Acosta Arevalo, a former Venezuelan Armed Forces captain accused by the government of involvement in a failed “coup d’etat.” He was arrested and died in 2019.
On Sept. 4, a few days before the U.N.’s report came out, Amnesty International published a report on Arevalo, concluding that he died in the room where his arraignment hearing took place and didn’t receive “medical care in the moments before his death.” Amnesty’s report contradicted Venezuelan authorities’ claim that he died in a hospital.
Amnesty's report states that Arevalo’s case file makes no mention of torture, despite multiple documents referring to more than 50 injuries he sustained. The U.N. mission concluded he died after being tortured while in the custody of Venezuela’s military counterintelligence agency (DGCIM).
Once South America’s wealthiest country, Venezuela has been mired in an economic, political and humanitarian crisis since 2014. Inflation is rampant, and many Venezuelans rely on outside humanitarian aid to survive.
Maduro’s government has been under increasing political pressure from the U.S. and other nations that recognize opposition leader, Juan Guaido, as the legitimate president of Venezuela. U.S. sanctions – for alleged human rights violations and corruption, among other things – have kept crude oil buyers away, deepening the country's economic crisis.
In August, Maduro said he was pardoning 110 people and would stop prosecuting dozens of opposition activists and politicians. The U.S. State Department said the pardons were “token actions” and called for free and fair legislative elections, which are scheduled for December.