The United Nations condemned on Tuesday the “widespread and systematic use of excessive force” against anti-government protesters.
The UN rights office accused security forces and pro-government groups of being responsible for at least 73 protester deaths.
Presenting the preliminary findings from an investigation conducted in June and July, the office described “a picture of widespread and systematic use of excessive force and arbitrary detentions against demonstrators in Venezuela.”
“Witness accounts suggest that security forces, mainly the National Guard, the National Police and local police forces, have systematically used disproportionate force to instill fear, crush dissent, and to prevent demonstrators from assembling, rallying and reaching public institutions to present petitions,” the rights office said in a statement.
“Government authorities have rarely condemned such incidents,” it stressed.
The UN accusations came as President Nicolas Maduro’s all-powerful Constituent Assembly is forging ahead on promises to punish the embattled leader’s foes.
Venezuela, which is suffering from an acute economic crisis marked by shortages of basic goods, has experienced four months of street demonstrations against Maduro that have left 125 people dead.
The assembly was expected to gather at the stately legislative palace in Caracas for the first time since voting Saturday to remove the nation’s outspoken chief prosecutor, a move that drew international condemnation.
After receiving no response to repeated requests for access to Venezuela to investigate the situation in the country, UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein deployed a team of human rights officers to monitor the country remotely.
The investigators conducted 135 interviews between June 6 and July 31 with victims and their families, witnesses, civil society organizations, journalists, lawyers and doctors, among others.
“Since the wave of demonstrations began in April, there has been a clear pattern of excessive force used against protesters,” Zeid said in the statement.
“Several thousand people have been arbitrarily detained, many reportedly subjected to ill-treatment and even torture, while several hundred have been brought before military rather than civilian courts,” he said, stressing that “these patterns show no signs of abating.”
According to the preliminary findings, security forces were allegedly responsible for at least 46 of the protester deaths, while pro-government armed groups were behind 27.
It remained unclear who was behind the remaining deaths, the rights office said.
At the same time, nearly 2,000 people have been injured, while more than 5,050 people have been arbitrarily arrested, with over 1,000 reportedly still in detention, it said.
The rights office also decried “credible reports of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by security forces of such detainees, amounting in several cases to torture,” saying tactics included “electric shocks, beatings.., suffocation with gas, and threats of killings, and in some cases threats of sexual violence.”
Zeid warned that “these violations have occurred amid the breakdown of the rule of law in Venezuela, with constant attacks by the Government against the National Assembly and the Attorney-General’s Office.”
“The responsibility for the human rights violations we are recording lies at the highest levels of government,” he said.
Foreign ministers from 14 nations are meanwhile meeting in Peru on Tuesday in hopes of finding consensus on a regional response to Venezuela’s growing political crisis.
Peru’s president has been vocal in rejecting Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly, but the region has found that agreeing on any collective actions has proved tricky. Still, Venezuela is facing mounting pressure and threats of deepening sanctions from trade partners, including a recent suspension from South America’s Mercosur.
Despite growing international criticism, Maduro has remained firm in pressing the Constituent Assembly forward in executing his priorities. He called for a special meeting Tuesday in Caracas of the Bolivarian Alliance, a leftist coalition of 11 Latin American nations.
The assembly has signaled it will act swiftly in following through with Maduro’s commands, voting Saturday to replace chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz with a government loyalist and create a “truth commission” that will wield unusual power to prosecute and levy sentences.
“It should be clear: We arrived there to help President Nicolas Maduro, but also to create strong bases for the construction of Bolivarian and Chavista socialism,” Diosdado Cabello, a leader of the ruling socialist party and member of the new assembly, told a crowd of supporters Monday.