Latam nations, Canada ask ICC to probe Venezuela government

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A group of Latin American countries and Canada said on Wednesday they had asked the International Criminal Court to investigate Venezuela’s government over allegations of crimes against humanity in using force to repress political opponents.

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It is the first time that member nations of the court have referred a fellow member state to prosecutors and it adds pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government, which is mired in an economic and political crisis.

The presidents of Peru, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Paraguay and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday signed a letter and sent it to the court based in The Hague on Wednesday, Peruvian foreign minister Nestor Popolizio said.

The seven-page letter cited evidence gathered by a range of international experts and organizations, and asked for investigation of crimes said to have been committed after Feb. 12, 2014.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Foreign ministers from the countries said the experts had found that the Venezuelan government bore responsibility for crimes ranging from torture, murder and rape to forced disappearances and violations of due process.

“There is a large and growing body of evidence that the Maduro regime has committed gross human rights violations against its own people,” Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told a news conference with her counterparts during the annual United Nations General Assembly.

The letter was addressed to ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who in February began preliminary research into the situation in Venezuela, a member of OPEC. However, she has yet to ask judges for permission to open a formal investigation.

Bensouda said she was looking at allegations Venezuelan state police “used excessive force to disperse and put down demonstrations, and arrested and detained thousands of actual or perceived members of the opposition, a number of whom would have been allegedly subjected to serious abuse and ill-treatment in detention.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Canada’s Trudeau said the complaint by the six countries would send the message that the situation in Venezuela is catastrophic and they needed to help Venezuelans out of the humanitarian crisis.

“The failure of leadership in Venezuela is of concern not just to us, but to leaders in the region, friends to Venezuela and of concern to the world,” Trudeau said.

Human Rights Watch called the unprecedented step a reflection of “the growing alarm among other countries about the human rights catastrophe that has overtaken Venezuela.”

The human rights group found that in two crackdowns, in 2014 and 2017, Venezuelan security forces committed systematic abuses against critics, including torture, and detained more than 5,400 people between April and July 2017.

Reporting by Dave Graham, Dave Lawder; Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota and Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool