U.N. rights chief Bachelet urges Venezuela to release prisoners

MAIQUETIA, Venezuela, 22 Jun (Reuters) - U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet on Friday urged Venezuela’s government to release prisoners who were arrested for peacefully protesting, and confirmed that a delegation would remain in the country to monitor the human rights situation.

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Bachelet, a former Chilean president who arrived in Caracas on Wednesday for a three-day visit, met with President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido, as well as activists and victims of human rights violations.

“It was deeply painful to hear the desire of the victims, of their families, to obtain justice in the face of serious human rights violations,” said Bachelet in a press conference at the Maiquetia international airport before leaving Venezuela.

“I hope that our evaluation, our cooperation, and our assistance will help reinforce the prevention of torture and access to justice in Venezuela.”

Bachelet’s visit, at the government’s invitation, came ahead of the opening on Monday of a three-week session of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Western nations are expected to use the session to heap criticism on Maduro, amid the economic meltdown in his nation that has triggered the flight of some 4 million refugees.

Bachelet, in a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March, said Venezuelan security forces, backed by pro-government militias, had quashed peaceful protests with excessive use of force, killings and torture.

Guaido, head of the opposition-controlled legislature, assumed a rival interim presidency in January, denouncing Maduro as an usurper who had secured re-election last year in a vote widely considered fraudulent.

Earlier on Friday, Guaido told reporters that two members of Bachelet’s team would remain in Venezuela to investigate issues relating to chronic shortages of food and medicine, along with allegations the Maduro administration has violated human rights while cracking down on the opposition.

Maduro, a socialist who says he is the victim of an attempted U.S.-led coup, retains the support of the armed forces and controls state functions.

Reporting by Corina Pons and Shaylim Castro; Editing by Tom Hogue