Venezuelan state security forces systematically abused opposition protesters detained during months of deadly political unrest earlier this year, Human Rights Watch charged Wednesday.
Some of the more than 5,000 people detained were beaten, sexually assaulted or given electrical shocks in what the New York-based rights group describes in a report as a level of repression “unseen in Venezuela in recent memory.”
“The widespread vicious abuses against government opponents in Venezuela, including egregious cases of torture, and the absolute impunity for the attackers suggests government responsibility at the highest levels,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch. “These are not isolated abuses or occasional excesses by rogue officers.”
Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets in April after the government-stacked Supreme Court issued a ruling that stripped the opposition-controlled congress of its last powers. Although the court quickly reversed course under a barrage of international criticism, near-daily protests swelled into a general airing of grievances against President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government over Venezuela's high crime, sky-high inflation and shortages of food and medicine.
At least 120 people died during the unrest. Protests have died out in recent months following the election of a pro-government constitutional assembly now ruling with virtually unlimited powers.
Echoing earlier findings by the United Nations’ top human rights official, the report is the most extensive look to date at allegations of abuse and torture of detainees that circulated during the anti-government unrest. While dramatic images of police and soldiers cracking down on young protesters were broadcast around the world, less is known about the thousands more who were hauled away and what happened to them in custody out of view of the media and human rights watchdogs.
Maduro’s government has long denied allegations of torture and accuses young demonstrators of instigating violence while seeking to remove the democratically elected president.
“The strategy used against my country from certain centers of power is a clear example of the use of human rights as a political weapon,” Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told the United Nations’ human rights council in September. He dismissed allegations of abuse as “baseless lies.”
Human Rights Watch acknowledges that some protesters used gasoline bombs and homemade mortars in clashes with security forces. But most of the abuses described in its report were not part of any effort to contain violence on the streets.
In conjunction with Venezuelan rights group Foro Penal, Human Rights Watch documented 88 cases involving 314 people described as being victims of excessive force and arbitrary arrests.
In some of the accounts, detainees describe being forced to eat food that contained excrement, cigarette ashes or insects. Others tell of tear gas being released in closed environments where they were held.
In one case, a man taken into custody at his home by plainclothes police says he was handcuffed naked at the ankles and wrists and attached to a chain hanging from a ceiling. He says he was then lifted from the floor, soaked with water and shocked with a long metal stick.
“We were asked to give you 440, but since you're a little girl, we'll give you 220,” an officer allegedly told him, referring to the electrical voltage.
Researchers interviewed more than 120 people and examined corroborating evidence such as medical records and official statements. Human Rights Watch said it withheld the names of the witnesses out of fear they could suffer retaliation.
In one case, a witness describes officers inappropriately touching the legs and breasts of two female detainees, including a 16-year-old girl. The man also tells of witnessing officers pull down the pants of another young male detainee, putting tear gas powder and water in his anus and penetrating him with a broomstick.
Human Rights Watch says it found no evidence that high-level officials have taken any steps to prevent or punish the violations.
Orlando Moreno, a 26-year-old student activist in Monagas state whose case is described in the report, said he was handcuffed to an elevated water tank for nine hours after being captured following a protest, his feet barely able to touch the ground. Officers beat and kicked him in the head and ribs as he cried throughout the ordeal. When he was finally let down, his arms were red and swollen.
Five months later, Moreno said he still has no feeling in parts of two fingers.
He is now taking classes online to avoid leaving his home and said he continues to be followed by state security forces. He said many Venezuelans have grown disillusioned with the prospect of change and are overwhelmed simply trying to make ends meet.
“We have to fight for our daily bread,” he said. “It's a vicious cycle.”