CARACAS Venezuela's government has violated the rights of opposition protesters through beatings, illegal detentions and failure to follow due process, rights group Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Monday.
The group, which Venezuela's socialist government views as a pawn of the U.S. government, said troops used excessive force against peaceful protesters and that state prosecutors and judges tolerated or participated in the abuses.
The report entitled "Punished for Protesting" largely echoed opposition criticism of President Nicolas Maduro's handling of the unrest but also referred briefly to violence and public order disruptions by the protesters.
The New York-based group's report was based on research in March on 45 cases of "serious human rights violations." (here)
The group interviewed more than 90 people including victims and their family members and more than a dozen lawyers who provided them legal counsel.
"In most of the cases we documented, security forces employed unlawful force, including shooting and severely beating unarmed individuals," reads the report.
"Nearly all of the victims were also arrested and, while in detention, subjected to physical and psychological abuse."
The group alleged 10 torture cases, with incidents of electric shocks, burns and threats of rape or execution.
At least 41 people have died, including both government and opposition supporters plus security force members, since protests began in early February, according to official figures.
Nearly 800 people have been injured, and 197 remain in jail from more than 2,000 arrested overall.
Maduro has acknowledged some abuses by security officials, but hotly denies accusations of a systematic campaign of human rights violations and says Venezuela's security forces were transformed when his predecessor Hugo Chavez took power in 1998.
State prosecutors have opened 142 investigations of human rights abuses, including one for torture, and detained 17 officials in connection with excessive violence.
Protesters wielding rocks and petrol bombs for months barricaded streets and clashed with police who responded with water-cannons and volleys of tear gas.
The demonstrations began in protest over crime, inflation and product shortages. Accusations of police abuse during the unrest quickly became another motivation for the protests, which have nonetheless waned in recent weeks.
Maduro appears to have weathered the worst, however, and shows no sign of stepping down or being pushed from office.
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth Editing by W Simon)