Venezuela committing crimes against humanity to crush dissent, UN report finds

Venezuelan President Maduro and other high-level officials are accused of personally selecting targets for arrest and torture by intelligence agencies. (Keystone/EPA EFE/Miguel Gutierrez)

Venezuela’s intelligence agencies are committing crimes against humanity as part of a plan orchestrated at the highest levels of government to crush dissent in the country, UN experts have warned.

In a report released on Tuesday, a group of UN experts tasked with investigating alleged violations in Venezuela said it had uncovered how members of the intelligence services worked with President Nicolás Maduro and other high level officials to target and torture perceived opponents of the government. 

“Our investigations and analysis show that the Venezuelan state relies on the intelligence services and its agents to repress dissent in the country,” Marta Valiñas, chair of the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, said in a statement. 

“In doing so, grave crimes and human rights violations are being committed, including acts of torture and sexual violence. These practices must stop immediately, and the individuals responsible must be investigated and prosecuted in accordance with the law.” 

In its first report two years ago, the commission already accused state actors, including Venezuela’s president and top ministers, of committing probable crimes against humanity against opponents of the government since 2014, including extrajudicial executions, rape, arbitrary detention, torture and forced disappearances.

The latest report, which is the third since the mission was created by the UN Human Rights Council in 2019, gives a more detailed picture of the abuses carried out by members of the country’s military intelligence agency (known as DGCIM) and civilian intelligence agency (known as SEBIN) as part of a plan orchestrated by President Maduro and other high-level authorities “to suppress criticism and opposition”. 

“President Nicolás Maduro, supported by other high-level authorities, stand out as the main architects in the design, implementation and maintenance of a machinery with the purpose of repressing dissent,” the report said.

It found that Maduro and other persons of his inner circle, as well as other high-level authorities, were involved in “selecting targets” that would be arrested and tortured. 

Both SEBIN and DGCIM made “extensive use of sexual and gender-based violence to torture and humiliate” detainees, the report found. 

The mission, which has never been granted access to Venezuela, said it had documented 122 cases of victims who were subjected to torture, sexual violence and/or other “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” at the hands of DGCIM agents. 

It said torture was carried out at the agency’s Boleita headquarters in Caracas and in “a network of covert detention centres across the country”. 

The mission said it has also investigated at least 51 cases of torture and ill-treatment of detainees by SEBIN since 2014. The detainees included “opposition politicians, journalists, protesters and human rights defenders”, with most cases occurring in the El Helicoide detention centre in Caracas.

The UN experts detailed how orders were given by individuals at the highest political levels to lower-ranking officials. Former SEBIN employees told the investigators that, in some cases, “torture was ordered directly by President Maduro”. Methods listed include electric shocks, asphyxiation and stress positions. 

The report said Venezuelan authorities had failed to hold perpetrators of abuse accountable and said crimes committed by SEBIN and DGCIM “continued to this day”. 

“The same structures, dynamics and practices remain in place, while relevant officials continue to work for the agencies, and in some cases have even been promoted,” it said. 

“The human rights violations by state intelligence agencies, orchestrated at the highest political levels, have taken place in a climate of almost complete impunity,” said Francisco Cox, member of the mission, in a statement. 

“The international community must do everything to ensure that victims’ rights to justice and reparations are guaranteed.” 

In a separate report also released on Tuesday, the mission detailed rights abuses against local populations in gold-mining areas of Venezuela’s southern Bolívar state.

Experts documented how both state and none-state actors have committed human rights violations and crimes against the local population in the struggle for control over mining areas. 

The violations include “unlawful deprivation of life, disappearances, extortion, corporal punishment, and sexual and gender-based violence”.

The report accused authorities of not only failing to prevent and investigate the abuses but appeared to have actively colluded with non-state actors in parts of the region. 

“The situation in Bolívar state and other mining areas is deeply troubling,” said mission member Patricia Tappatá Valdez. “Local populations, including indigenous peoples, are caught in the violent battle between State and armed criminal groups for the control of gold.”

The Human Rights Council will vote in early October on whether to renew the mission’s mandate, which would allow it to continue its work.