Judges and prosecutors in Venezuela have played a significant role in serious rights violations against government opponents, UN investigators have said.
In a new report released on Thursday, the UN team tasked with probing the rights situation in Venezuela slammed a dire lack of judicial independence in the country while detailing how deficiencies in the justice system have allowed certain violations, including the use of torture, to continue with impunity.
“Amid Venezuela’s profound human rights crisis, the independence of the judiciary has become deeply eroded, jeopardising its role in imparting justice and safeguarding individual rights,” Marta Valinas, who chairs the UN fact-finding mission, said.
The team was established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2019 to probe a slew of alleged violations in the crisis-wracked country, where President Nicolas Maduro faces accusations of cracking down on dissent.
“Our latest investigation found reasonable grounds to believe that, under intensifying political pressure, judges and prosecutors have … played a significant role in serious violations and crimes against real and perceived opponents committed by various state actors in Venezuela,” Valinas said in a statement.
The team’s report was based on interviews and analysis of 183 detentions of real or perceived government opponents between 2014 and last month.
It noted that two years into the mission, Venezuela has not allowed the investigators to conduct in-country fact-finding.
Rights group Amnesty International (AI) welcomed the UN findings.
“Today the need for international justice mechanisms, such as the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, to support victims in Venezuela is more evident than ever,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at AI, said in a statement.
“Crimes against humanity committed in the country will go unpunished if alternative means to justice that do not go through state institutions are not sought,” something AI and “a large part of Venezuelan and international civil society have been denouncing”.
‘Devastating consequences on victims’
Among the cases reviewed by the UN were male and female detainees subjected in 2020 to short-term enforced disappearance, torture including sexual violence, and “arbitrary deprivation of life”.
The investigators said they found no evidence of high-level officials being probed or prosecuted for abuses committed.
Cases where authorities have been prosecuted, which Venezuelan authorities often point to as evidence of progress by the judicial system, are woefully inadequate, the report said.
The UN team referred to the case of opposition leader Fernando Alban, who fell to his death from the 10th floor while detained by the national intelligence service in 2018.
The team found the charges were “highly limited in scope and/or focused on isolating low-level perpetrators, as opposed to seeking accountability further up the chain of command”.
Mission member Francisco Cox said “the overwhelming majority” of violations targeting government opponents that had been previously documented by the team had “not resulted in thorough investigations, prosecutions and convictions of all those allegedly responsible”.
The investigators also found that prosecutors had submitted information tainted by torture that judges subsequently admitted as evidence against defendants.
In some cases, judges ordered alleged torture victims, sometimes bearing visible injuries, be returned to the same detention facility where they said the abuse occurred.
The judges’ actions and omissions had “devastating consequences on victims, including continued torture”, the report said.