January 28, 2019 / 2:24 AM / 2 months ago

Venezuelan victims demand punishment for abuses, despite amnesty plan

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s self-proclaimed interim president and opposition leader Juan Guaido and his supporters thrust pamphlets offering amnesty into the hands of soldiers on Sunday, part of a strategy to win over allies of President Nicolas Maduro to a transitional government.

A Venezuelan National Guard sets on fire a copy of a document, regarding a proposed amnesty law for members of the military, police and civilians, which was presented by supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido, outside a military unit in Caracas, Venezuela, January 27, 2019. Ronald Pena/El Pitazo via REUTERS

The reaction from the soldiers in the glare of TV cameras was, predictably, rejection. Some tore up or set fire to the paper, which promised no civil or criminal retribution for acts committed under Maduro’s government, considered illegitimate by the United States, Canada and most Latin American nations.

While Guaido is unlikely to give up on a plan that political strategists have long argued will be an essential part of any attempt to peel military support away from the Maduro government, concerns are also emerging from human rights groups and victims of serious abuses.

“Amnesty is good as long as it is not for human rights violators,” said Bonny de Simonovis, wife of Ivan Simonovis, a police chief arrested in 2002 and who is under house arrest.

Venezuela is not the first country to face the conundrum of how to facilitate a transition from a government accused of abuses or armed conflict without letting the worst offenders off the hook. This was a hot issue in the peace process in neighboring Colombia.

How to get the balance right is a topic of discussion among theorists of transitional justice and conflict resolution around the world.

After a phone call of encouragement from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Guaido declared himself interim president on Wednesday, arguing that Maduro had stolen last year’s election and had no legitimate claim to run the country. In a coordinated diplomatic effort the 35-year-old opposition leader was quickly recognized by the United States, Canada and most Latin American countries.

Venezuela’s generals are accused by the United States and other powers of a range of crimes including cocaine trafficking, financial fraud and illegal mining. Even more seriously, human rights groups link the security forces to extrajudicial killings, torture and illegal detention.

“In all situations of transitional justice there is a really difficult issue and that is that fighting against impunity and facilitating a transition often work in opposite directions,” said David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank.

The amnesty plan is due to be submitted to consultation on Monday with committees of victims and non-governmental human rights organizations, which have already warned that the benefits can not cover people linked to crimes against humanity such as murder, torture and political persecution, among others.

The respected Human Rights Center at Andres Bello Catholic University said that the final amnesty law produced by the National Assembly, the legislative body that Guaido heads, must include a clear clause excluding perpetrators of “grave human rights crimes whether they are the material or intellectual authors, complicit or have covered up (abuses) by action or omission.”

As it stands, the draft law contains a certain amount of ambiguity, Smilde said, making it sound like it is going to absolve any military person who participates with the “restoration of democracy.” That ambiguity may be deliberate, to encourage military personnel to defect.

Juan Guillermo Requesens, father of opposition lawmaker Juan Requesens, a prisoner since August, said, “It is good to bring people on board to restore the democratic order, but the violation of human rights cannot be pardoned.”

Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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