GENEVA — U.N. investigators Wednesday implicated President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and other high-ranking officials in systematic human rights abuses amounting to crimes against humanity — including killings, torture and sexual violence — and called for criminal investigations to determine the extent of their involvement.
A three-member panel appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council said it “had reasonable grounds to believe” that Maduro, the interior minister, the defense minister, and the directors of Venezuela’s security and intelligence services “ordered or contributed to” the arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and torture of critics and extrajudicial killings. The panel said they also failed to prevent abuses although they had the powers to do so.
The 411-page report listed about 3,000 cases and focused on events since 2014, when opposition to Maduro’s government gathered force and authorities resorted to increasingly brutal tactics to stay in power.
Government critics and their relatives and friends were targeted to silence opposition to Maduro, the panel said. Security services also arbitrarily killed people as part of a crackdown on crime aimed at winning popularity before National Assembly elections.
“Far from being isolated acts, these crimes were coordinated and committed pursuant to state policies, with the knowledge or direct support of commanding officers and senior government officials,” Marta Valiñas, a Portuguese jurist who chaired the panel, said in a statement.
The investigators said the information they received showed that Maduro and the various ministers of the interior and defense over the period examined were aware of the crimes and “gave orders, coordinated activities, and supplied resources in furtherance of the plans and policies set out in the report.”
The extent of their involvement in these crimes “must be investigated and a determination of their individual criminal responsibility — either in a national or international jurisdiction — must be made by the competent judicial authorities,” the panel said.
There was no official comment from the Venezuelan government, but the foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, posted on Twitter that it was “a report plagued by falsehoods, written remotely, without any methodological rigor by a ghost mission biased against Venezuela, and controlled by governments subordinated to Washington.”
The report, which will be presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva next week, delivers a devastating critique of Maduro’s embattled government at a point when it has made conciliatory gestures seemingly aimed at improving its image and legitimacy at home and abroad and easing the pressure of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s crippled economy.
The government in August released 50 political opponents and said it would end prosecutions of dozens of opposition politicians and political activists in an attempt to avert an opposition boycott of congressional elections planned for December. Among those released from prison was Juan Requesens, accused by the government of involvement in a failed 2018 assassination plot against Maduro. He was moved to house arrest.
The government had also stepped up cooperation with the U.N. office for human rights over the past year, allowing officials to visit a number of prisons and interview detainees and promising to investigate allegations of extrajudicial killings and the deaths of anti-government protesters.
Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement Monday that her staff last week visited the main detention centers of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service and the Directorate General of Military Counter-Intelligence in Venezuela. The visits represented a “remarkable leap forward” that would lead to improvements for detainees, she said.
But the government offered no such cooperation to members of the panel, an independent body reporting to the Human Rights Council. Panel members said they were not allowed to visit Venezuela and received no response to repeated requests for meetings and information.
The panel based its findings on 274 interviews conducted by telephone and secure video links with victims, family members, lawyers, members of the judiciary and former and serving members of the security services as well as certified videos, satellite imagery and social media content.
It said that arrested opposition activists and critics were taken to the headquarters of the intelligence service and other buildings in the capital, Caracas, and were tortured with beatings, asphyxiation with plastic bags, cuts and mutilations, and electric shocks.
In seven reported cases, interrogators used sexual violence, including rape, against male and female detainees in a bid to elicit confessions, implicate other people or to punish and humiliate them.
An employee of the intelligence service told the panel that orders about who was to be investigated often came from Maduro and Diosdado Cabello, head of the ruling Socialist Party and a prominent political ally of the president. Torture was carried out in the presence or under the supervision of senior officials, including the chief of the Strategic Investigations Directorate and other high-ranking commissioners in the unit.
The General Directorate of Military Counter-Intelligence similarly targeted military personnel and associated civilians suspected of involvement in rebellions or coup attempts, the panel said. It cited the case of former Navy Capt. Rafael Acosta Arévalo and said it believed that his death in the agency’s custody in 2019 was a result of torture.
The panel said Maduro and the ministers of interior and defense were included in a list of 45 people who it said should be investigated and prosecuted either for carrying out crimes or for giving the orders, setting policies or providing resources that enabled them.
“Commanding officers, including high-level authorities within the intelligence and military counterintelligence services, had full knowledge of this pattern of crimes, which often occurred in the very buildings where they worked,” it said.
The panel investigated 140 cases related to the crackdown on crime that had resulted in the deaths of 413 people, mostly young men, many of them shot at point-blank range. It concluded the killings were “part of a policy to eliminate unwanted members of society under the cover of combating crime,” Valiñas said.
“These extrajudicial executions cannot be attributed to a lack of discipline among the security forces,” she added. “High-ranking officials had effective command and control over the perpetrators and knowledge of their actions but failed to prevent or repress the violations.”
The government officially phased out the anti-crime operations in 2017, but extrajudicial killings by the Special Action Forces have continued. The unit should be dismantled, the panel said, and those in control of security agencies should be held accountable.
“It is still a major problem that the government must address,” Valiñas told reporters.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.