GENEVA (Reuters) - Venezuela's judiciary is persecuting students, dissidents and independent judges while turning a blind eye to most crimes in a country with one of the world's highest murder rates, an international human rights watchdog said on Thursday.
About 1,500 students face prosecution after three months of street protests this year with no evidence they took part in any criminal act, including about 160 still behind bars, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said.
Forty-two people, including 38 civilians, were killed in the daily marches to decry crime, inflation and food shortages in Venezuela. Excessive use of force by security forces has been documented as well as least 14 alleged cases of torture.
Yet there has been no substantial progress in investigating such cases, the ICJ said.
The independence of legal institutions in Venezuela is "very weak", the Geneva-based jurists group concluded in a report.
"It is of the utmost importance that the legal and political institutions of the State - especially the judiciary and the Attorney General's Office - be strengthened and become the fundamental pillar of democracy, as guardians of the rule of law".
Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, jailed in February for leading the protests, was being held in isolation in a military prison by the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro, the ICJ said.
A judge in Caracas ruled on Thursday that Lopez should face trial on charges including instigating arson and damage in connection with the protests. Four students will go to trial on similar charges.
The government says the protests were a veneer for a U.S.-backed conspiracy to oust the successor to the late Hugo Chavez.
Most of Venezuela's nearly 2,000 judges hold temporary appointments with no security of tenure, leaving them vulnerable to pressures and sometimes to reprisals by the government, parliament or other forces, the ICJ said.
Prosecutors can also be readily dismissed, according to the group, which is composed of 60 eminent judges and lawyers.
"There is a lack of independence of judges in Venezuela beginning with the Supreme Court. Appointments are made on the basis of political loyalty," Carlos Ayala, a Venezuelan law professor and member of the ICJ's Executive Committee, told a news briefing in Geneva.
"Judges are used to persecute dissidents, that is to say judges and prosecutors are used against persons who make demands, such as union leaders and students," he said.
The country of 30 million is one of the world's most dangerous.
Maduro's government, which has declared war on crime, said in December the murder rate had fallen by about a quarter in 2013, dismissing opponents' talk of ever-rising crime as propaganda.
The official homicide rate is about 52 per 100,000 people last year, or more than 15,000 victims.
"We have record figures in crime and murders, every sort of crime but there are no prosecutions, no investigations, no indictments, no convictions," Pedro Nikken, an ICJ Commissioner and former dean of the Law School of the Universidad Central de Venezuela, told the news briefing.
"Instead, we have several hundred students indicted and prosecuted because they are fighting in the street for their future," he said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Editing by Angus MacSwan)