Venezuelan intelligence agents have arrested and tortured military personnel, accused of plotting against the government, according to an international rights group.
In a new report, Human Rights Watch and Foro Penal, a Venezuelan NGO, said authorities have also arrested and tortured the family members of some suspects in an effort to determine their whereabouts.
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In most cases, members of the country’s General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) or the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services (SEBIN) carried out the arrests, according to the rights groups.
In the report, published on Wednesday, detainees described being strangled, deprived of food and having the soles of their feet cut with razor blades.
“The Venezuelan government has brutally cracked down on members of the military accused of plotting against it,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
The two groups analysed information about cases involving a total of 32 people. Victims include military officers accused of plotting against the government and civilians accused of collaborating with Oscar Perez, a rogue police officer who was killed in January 2018 after opposing the government.
Several detainees did not have access to their families, lawyers or adequate medical treatment during their detentions, the report said.
The individuals were arrested for crimes including “treason” and “instigating rebellion”, however lawyers representing the accused said the charges were fabricated and not supported by any real evidence.
Human Rights Watch received no response from the Venezuelan government on the abuse allegations, which the rights groups said followed a widespread pattern of torture and abuse of detainees by Venezuelan police officers, intelligence agents and members of the Bolivarian National Guard.
More than 12,800 people have been arrested since 2014 in connection with anti-government protests, according to Foro Penal, with more than 7,500 since conditionally released.
Pressure mounting on Maduro
The report’s release comes a day before President Nicolas Maduro is due to be sworn in for a second six-year term after a controversial win in an election largely boycotted by the opposition last year.
Many countries have dismissed the vote as a sham, with a bloc of a dozen Latin American countries and Canada, known as the Lima Group, saying on Friday that they would not recognise Maduro’s new mandate.
The Organization of America States (OAS) is also due to meet in the coming days to discuss Venezuela and Nicaragua.
In a lengthy press conference on Wednesday, Maduro reiterated that his re-election had been democratic, adding that “the world is bigger than the Lima Group”. In recent months, Maduro has ramped up efforts to strengthen Venezuela’s ties with backers outside the region, most notably China and Russia.
This follows an unprecedented move in September when seven countries requested an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into Venezuela for human rights abuses.
“Impunity for human rights crimes in Venezuela is deliberate,” said Gonzalo Himiob Santome, Foro Penal’s director. “In a context in which those responsible for human rights abuses are more likely to be rewarded than brought to justice, it is critical to explore avenues to hold them accountable abroad.”
Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly, formed in August 2017 to rewrite the constitution, has threatened to shut down the opposition-controlled National Assembly if they continue to refuse to acknowledge Maduro as president.
The country continues to endure a prolonged economic crisis, which has seen millions flee sky-high inflation, food and medicine shortages and crime.