A report by Human Rights Watch into the actions of the Venezuelan government during opposition protests in the past three months charges authorities with systematically violated the rights of protestors and people near the scene of protests. After an investigation into 45 cases involving over 150 victims from Caracas and three states, the group concluded that there was “strong evidence of serious human rights violations committed by Venezuelan security forces.” It also accuses the federal attorney general’s office and judiciary of complicity with violations, saying officials “knew of, participated in, or otherwise tolerated abuses against protesters and detainees, including serious violations of their due process rights.” 

Security forces, the group wrote, beat and shot unarmed protestors. Those arrested in connection with the protests suffered “severe physical and psychological abuse”, including torture in at least 10 cases, and often were denied due process. And the motive was expressly political, according to the group: “The nature and timing of many of these abuses -- as well as the frequent use of political epithets by the perpetrators -- suggests that their aim was not to enforce the law or disperse protests, but rather to punish people for their political views or perceived views.”

The findings directly contradict the claims of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, who has said that torture ended in Venezuela with the government of predecessor Hugo Chávez. “In Venezuela, no one gets tortured, nor are rights violated,” he said in February, “and if any official is discovered to be doing so, we investigate the official and hand him over to the Attorney General’s office.” Maduro has routinely accused protestors -- some of whom took to the streets at the behest of opposition lawmakers who called for “the exit” or resignation of Maduro -- of seeking to execute a “coup,” and has sought to paint them broadly as violent.

In a press release issued on Monday, Human Rights Watch acknowledged that some protestors had indeed used violence, “including throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces,” but added that authorities had gone far beyond fighting fire with fire. Its research, it wrote, “shows that Venezuelan security forces have repeatedly used unlawful force against unarmed and nonviolent people. Some of the worst abuses documented in the report were against people who were not even participating in demonstrations, or were already detained and fully under the control of security forces.”   

At least 41 people have died in connection with the protests, over 800 injured and 197 remain in detention.