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International Criminal Court to Open Office in Venezuela

FILE - Venezuelan security forces guard the shore and a boat in the port city of La Guaira, Venezuela, May 3, 2020.
FILE - Venezuelan security forces guard the shore and a boat in the port city of La Guaira, Venezuela, May 3, 2020.

The prosecutor's office of the International Criminal Court said Thursday that it will open an office in Venezuela as it investigates allegations of torture and killings by the South American country's security forces.

The decision to open the office was announced by ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan at the end of a three-day trip to the capital, Caracas.

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

Among other measures, Khan said Maduro's government agreed to provide visas to court officials and to the participation of international organizations and partners, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"Any state that encounters difficulties in complying with the rule of law must be respected," Khan said. He added that he is "aware that the visit has not been easy, perhaps; but I feel very grateful for the commitment and the frank debates that we have had."

Khan announced the investigation in November. At the time, the court and Maduro's administration signed a memorandum of understanding in which the government agreed to cooperate to clarify the facts that led to the initiation of the process.

That announcement followed a lengthy preliminary probe started in February 2018 that focused on allegations of excessive force, arbitrary detention and torture by security forces during a crackdown on anti-government protests in 2017.

Khan's predecessor, Fatou Bensouda, had indicated there was a reasonable basis to conclude that crimes against humanity had been committed in Venezuela, echoing the findings of the U.N.'s human rights council last year. But she left the decision to open any probe to Khan, a British lawyer who took the reins of the ICC earlier this year.

Maduro 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.

Since its creation two decades 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 the 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.