ICC to open office in Venezuela to investigate rights abuses

Nicolas Maduro agrees to give visas to ICC officials investigating alleged crimes against humanity during 2017 protests.

Karim A A Khan QC speaking
ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim AA Khan said he welcomed the Venezuelan government's commitment to explore cooperation and technical assistance as part of the court's investigation [Zurimar Campos/ Venezuelan presidency handout via AFP]

The International Criminal Court (ICC) will open an office in Venezuela, amid a preliminary investigation into alleged human rights violations committed by security officials during anti-government protests in 2017.

The decision to open the office was announced at the end of a three-day visit to the capital, Caracas, by ICC top prosecutor Karim A A Khan.

In a televised appearance alongside President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday, Khan said he welcomed the Venezuelan government’s commitment to explore cooperation and technical assistance as part of the efforts to investigate alleged crimes against humanity.

“I know my visit here has not been simple,” Khan said through an official translation, adding Maduro was “very clear” last year that the ICC investigation was unwarranted.

“We have had a frank exchange,” Khan said, adding that the two had agreed that “the ICC prosecutor can open an office in Caracas. It is a very important, very significant step.”

Khan last visited Venezuela in November of last year, when he said he would open an investigation into possible crimes against humanity that officials in Maduro’s government have been accused of committing since 2017.

That year, more than 100 people were killed when security forces cracked down on protests sparked by the arrests of several opposition leaders and a Venezuelan Supreme Court decision to dissolve the opposition-dominated National Assembly.

A team of United Nations investigators said last year that Venezuela’s judicial system has perpetuated human rights violations as part of a state policy to quash opposition to Maduro.

The Venezuelan president on Thursday said the opening of the office in Venezuela will allow for an “effective level of dialogue” that will help clarify the facts in a timely manner.

“We are first interested in seeing justice carried out, and where a crime of the characteristics is committed, it be punished according to the law, on time,” Maduro said. He added that the country’s judicial system is being overhauled.

Venezuela’s public ministry says more than 200 members of the police and military have been charged or sentenced for human rights violations.

Karim Khan shaking hands with Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro said the opening of the ICC office in Venezuela will allow for an ‘effective level of dialogue’ [Miraflores Palace/Handout via Reuters]

When the ICC opened its preliminary investigation, Khan’s predecessor Fatou Bensouda said there was a “reasonable basis” to believe the government had committed crimes against humanity.

Since its creation 20 years ago, the ICC has mostly focused on atrocities committed in Africa. It could be years before any criminal charges are presented as part of the court’s investigation.

In a written statement, Khan said the start of the process “is not a one-way street” and should also serve as the basis for stronger partnerships.

He said efforts to put into effect a memorandum of understanding will include providing technical assistance and knowledge transfer to Venezuelan authorities “to support the effective investigation and prosecution at the national level of alleged crimes”, as well as offering training and expert advice to help implement domestic legislation.

“It should also be a basis for deepening engagement and strengthening partnerships,” Khan’s statement said. “In this regard, I believe we have reached a significant agreement with the Government of Venezuela to work together with international partners, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, on appropriate measures to facilitate implementation of the commitments set out in [the memorandum].”

As part of the agreement, Venezuela has agreed to provide ICC officials with multiple entry visas to help them in carrying out their work.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is backed by about 60 countries as Venezuela’s acting president after Maduro was re-elected in a 2018 poll widely viewed as fraudulent, praised the development on Twitter.

“There were and continue to be crimes against humanity committed in Venezuela,” he wrote. “The announcement … about opening an ICC office in our country is progress to determine responsibility and implement justice, something that today does not exist for Venezuelans.”

Tamara Taraciuk, acting Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said the ICC prosecutor “can play a crucial role for accountability in Venezuela”.

“He should ensure that his interactions with the Maduro regime don’t come across as endorsement of investigations without guarantees of independence, which Venezuela’s justice system can’t provide today,” she tweeted.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies