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U.N. investigators accuse Venezuelan government of ‘crimes against humanity’

People pass a mural depicting Venezuelan leaders Hugo Chávez, Simón Bolivar and Nicolás Maduro in the Petare neighborhood of Caracas. (Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg News)

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and members of his inner circle gave orders, coordinated activities and supplied resources for arbitrary detentions, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings, acts that constitute “crimes against humanity,” investigators from the United Nations’ top human rights body concluded in a report released Wednesday. They recommended that their findings be probed by international courts.

U.N. investigators have repeatedly reported patterns of human rights abuses in the authoritarian socialist state. But the findings issued Wednesday were the closest they have come to establishing a chain of command that leads directly to the autocratic Maduro.

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The 411-page report could ramp up international pressure on the 57-year-old former union leader, who succeeded the late Hugo Chávez in 2013 to lead a police state ruling a nation in economic collapse. Maduro is seeking to break his international isolation by wooing the European Union to send observers for upcoming elections.

“The mission found reasonable grounds to believe that Venezuelan authorities and security forces have since 2014 planned and executed serious human rights violations, some of which, including arbitrary killings and the systematic use of torture, amount to crimes against humanity,” Marta Valiñas, who chaired the U.N. Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, said in a statement.

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U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet last year released a report documenting the torture, arbitrary arrest and killing of government opponents. But the findings issued Wednesday, based on investigations of 223 cases and reviews of nearly 3,000 others, appeared to go a step further.

“This is the first time that they are being very clear that crimes are under international law and that President Maduro, and his minister of defense and interior, have all been involved,” said Valentina Ballesta, Amnesty International researcher for South America. “Some of the crimes were systematic and widespread enough to be considered crimes against humanity.”

The report could be used to aid in the prosecution of senior officials at the International Criminal Court in The Hague or in countries that allow universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity.

Venezuelan officials did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza tweeted that the report had been “prepared remotely . . . by a phantom mission directed against Venezuela and controlled by governments subordinate to Washington.”

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The U.N. Human Rights Council created a three-member panel last year to lead a team of 13 professionals based in Panama City, Panama’s capital. The Venezuelan government denied the mission entry and did not cooperate with its investigation.

The investigators separated abuses into two main categories: repression of political dissent and excessive force used to control crime. They said Maduro’s feared Special Action Forces were responsible for 64 percent of the deaths they reviewed.

One political detainee told investigators of being held in a coffin-like vessel in the basement of intelligence police headquarters.

“I was in a white sarcophagus, like a blind man, for months and months,” the person said. “The isolation, it is so strong that you even doubt if you are alive. When they take away your sounds, when you do not see colors and you are in a cold temperature that forces you to tense your body, how do you know that you are alive?”

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Investigators documented “Operation Tun Tun,” a government security mission launched in 2017 to round up dissidents participating in street uprisings against Maduro. One female witness who was arrested told the panel she was tortured with electric shocks and threatened with rape.

As recently as March, the investigators noted, Maduro suggested the operation remained ongoing.

“To all the terrorists, the violent ones, the conspirators, and all the plotters,” he said on national television. “To all of them. . . . Even to you, you who are watching me, [Operation Tun Tun] will come for you.”

The mission probed special policing efforts launched under Maduro’s authority in 2015 with the aim of clearing “criminals” from urban areas. Investigators said at least 413 people were “arbitrarily deprived of their life.”

Rafael Uzcátegui, general coordinator of the Venezuelan human rights group Provea, said the report corroborates years of public complaints against Maduro’s government.

“There is a systematic public policy of violence,” he said.

The Trump administration has called for Maduro to step down, asserting he stole elections to consolidate his power. The United States and more than 50 other nations recognize National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as the country’s lawful leader.

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Maduro, meanwhile, has tried to sideline Guaidó. He pardoned more than 100 political opponents last month and entered into talks with less ardent factions of the opposition. His government is also seeking to convince the European Union to send monitors for the legislative elections scheduled for December.

“Will the European Union dare send a mission that ‘explores’ the ‘electoral conditions’ in Venezuela after the U.N. Human Rights Mission has demonstrated the conditions in which Maduro has committed and commits crimes against humanity?” opposition figure María Corina Machado tweeted Wednesday.

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Some viewed the findings as a new international pressure point against Maduro. But coming after U.S. indictments against Maduro and members of his inner circle this year, the growing possibility of international prosecution could also serve as powerful incentive for Venezluela’s socialist leaders to cling still more tightly to power.

“Venezuela’s opposition has tried to offer guarantees for those who break from Maduro,” said Geoff Ramsey, director of the Venezuela program at the Washington Office on Latin America. “But it’s hard to imagine tempting them with anything that could outweigh the possibility of ending up in a jail cell in Miami or The Hague.”

Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

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