U.N. cites systematic use of excessive force in Venezuela crackdown on dissent

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations on Wednesday said Venezuela’s security forces had committed extensive and apparently deliberate human rights violations in crushing anti-government protests and that democracy was “barely alive”.

The actions indicated “a policy to repress political dissent and instil fear”, the U.N. human rights office said in a report that called for further investigation and accountability.

It called on the government of President Nicolas Maduro to release arbitrarily detained demonstrators and to halt the unlawful use of military courts to try civilians.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein was asked whether the country was now a dictatorship.

“I think we would argue that over the course of time we have seen an erosion of democratic life in Venezuela,” Zeid told a news conference. “It must be barely alive, if still alive, is the way I would look at it.”

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Some 882 people are currently believed to remain in custody, among 5,341 arbitrarily detained in street protests since April, U.N. human rights official Hernan Vales said. Detainees are often subjected to ill-treatment, in some documented cases amounting to torture, the report said.

“After many of the violations they suffered, the violent house raids and the detentions, the ill-treatment... the large majority of them have told us that they don’t dare to demonstrate anymore. They are afraid,” Vales said.

The report followed initial findings issued on Aug 8.

“Credible and consistent accounts of victims and witnesses indicate that security forces systematically used excessive force to deter demonstrations, crush dissent and instil fear,” the report said.

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Security forces have used tear gas canisters, motorcycles, water cannons and live ammunition to disperse the protesters, it said.

Venezuelan security forces and pro-government groups are believed to be responsible for the deaths of 73 people since April, while responsibility for the remaining 51 deaths has not been determined, the U.N. report said.

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The overall toll of 124 includes nine members of the security forces that the government says were killed through July and four people allegedly killed by protesters, it said.

Some protesters have resorted to violent means, ranging from rocks to sling shots, Molotov cocktails and homemade mortars in protests against Maduro and shortages of food and other basic goods, it said.

Maduro has said Venezuela was the victim of an “armed insurrection” by U.S.-backed opponents seeking to gain control of the OPEC country’s oil wealth.

But as the political crisis deepened, the use of force by security forces has progressively escalated, the report said.

“The generalized and systematic use of excessive force during demonstrations and the arbitrary detention of protesters and perceived political opponents indicate that these were not the illegal or rogue acts of isolated officials,” it said.

Zeid said that amid the economic and social crises and rising political tensions, there was a “grave risk the situation in Venezuela will deteriorate further”.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Hugh Lawson