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Venezuelan security forces have committed 'gross violations' of human rights, UN says

Key Points
  • Special Action Forces were said to have killed 5,287 people last year and another 1,569 by mid-May of this year.
  • The detailed UN report, which was based on "558 interviews with victims and witnesses of human rights violations," described a lawless system of oppression and estimated the actual number of deaths in the country could be much higher.
  • President Nicolas Maduro's administration has not officially responded.
A member of Venezuela's Special Action Forces (FAES) takes part in a security operation in the 70's neighbourhood, municipality of El Valle, in Caracas, on April 1, 2019.
YURI CORTEZ | AFP | Getty Images

The United Nations has issued a scathing critique of the human rights situation in Venezuela, accusing the government of targeting opponents with a "shocking" number of extrajudicial killings.

Following a three-day trip to Venezuela last month, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet published a 16-page report accusing security forces loyal to President Nicolas Maduro of committing a series of "gross violations" against dissenters.

Special Action Forces were said to have killed 5,287 people last year and another 1,569 by mid-May of this year.

Referring to these figures, the report said that researchers from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) believed there are "reasonable grounds to believe that many of these killings constitute extrajudicial executions committed by the security forces."

Victims were arrested and shot, with crime scenes manipulated to suggest they had resisted police, the report said Thursday. Bachelet was scheduled to present the findings to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Friday.

The detailed report, which was based on "558 interviews with victims and witnesses of human rights violations," described a lawless system of oppression and estimated the actual number of deaths in the country could be much higher.

In most cases, "women and men were subjected to one or more forms of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including electric shocks, suffocation with plastic bags, water boarding, beatings, sexual violence, water and food deprivation, stress positions and exposure to extreme temperatures."

Chilean High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet speaks during a press conference in Caracas on June 21, 2019.
CRISTIAN HERNANDEZ | AFP | Getty Images

Security forces and intelligence services were found to have "routinely" resorted to such practices to extract information and confessions, intimidate and punish the detainees.

The UN said witnesses reported how Special Action Forces "manipulated the crime scene and evidence. They would plant arms and drugs and fire their weapons against the walls or in the air to suggest a confrontation and to show the victim had 'resisted authority.'"

Maduro's administration has not officially responded to the report. The embattled regime has previously dismissed human rights allegations as "lies."

However, Reuters reported on Friday that 22 prisoners, including the emblematic cases of judge Maria Afiuni and journalist Braulio Jatar, had been released. The other 20 people freed were students, Bachelet said. 

Political stand-off

The South American country is in the midst of one of the Western Hemisphere's worst humanitarian crises in recent memory, with some 4 million people having fled the country since 2015 amid an economic meltdown.

A protracted political stand-off has thrust the oil-rich, but cash-poor, country into uncharted territory — whereby it now has an internationally-recognized government, with no control over state functions, running parallel to Maduro's regime.

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Venezuela's Juan Guaidó is going up against Maduro's regime

Guaido assumed a rival interim presidency in January, citing Venezuela's constitution, and denounced Maduro's government as illegitimate after he secured re-election last year in a vote widely criticized as rigged. Guaido has since been recognized by more than 50 countries, including the U.S. and most Latin American and European countries.

However, Maduro has refused to cede power. And, crucially, he still has the broad support of the military.

UN calls for international support

Since 2013, the cumulative contraction of GDP (gross domestic product) in Venezuela has been 44.3%, while cumulative inflation over the same period skyrocketed up to 2.8 million percent at the end of January.

Maduro instituted attempted reforms in August 2018 that cut five zeroes off the currency and prices. The largest note in circulation had been 500 bolivars, which is now reportedly not enough to buy a piece of candy.

Bachelet said the scale of the crisis in the South American country had made it difficult for humanitarian assistance from the UN and other actors to fully respond to the needs of the people, particularly of the most vulnerable in society.

The minimum wage for the average citizen in Venezuela, which is estimated to be roughly $7 a month, would not be enough to cover even 5% of the basic food basket for a family of five people, the UN said.

"The fate of more than 30 million Venezuelans rests on the leadership's willingness and ability to put the human rights of the people ahead of any personal, ideological or political ambitions," Bachelet said.

"It is for this Council and the international community to support them in this shared endeavor," she added.