Photo: @raulstolk

A 400-page report that describes, in harrowing detail, the horrors endured by hundreds of persons arbitrarily detained and tortured in Venezuela since 2013, prepared by a panel of independent international experts designated by the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), concluded that there are “reasonable grounds to presume that crimes against humanity have been committed in Venezuela, as envisaged in Article 7 of the Rome Statute,” the International Criminal Court’s founding document.

Araminta Gonzalez, a 33-year-old engineering student and certified chemical products technician is one of those arbitrarily detained by CICPC operatives in 2014. She was sexually and psychologically tortured, kicked and hit with wooden boards and helmets, and brutally beaten while wrapped in a padded mat to avoid leaving bruises. Her toes were hit with a hammer. She received electric shocks on her breasts and her hair was yanked out of her scalp. She tried to commit suicide twice in custody.

Based on testimonies from victims of arbitrary detentions and torture, and their families, former government officers (like Major General Hebert Garcia Plaza, former Minister of Food), and NGO representatives, as well as numerous documents and other evidence from a variety of sources, the three experts (Santiago Cantón, Irwin Cotler and Manuel Ventura Robles), analyzed the nature and context of the crimes committed in Venezuela, identifying 131 murder victims from the 2014 and 2017 protest cycles; more than 8,292 extrajudicial executions since 2015, including that of Óscar Pérez and his group which occurred earlier this year; at least 289 cases of torture; an estimated 15,000 persons injured during the 2017 protests; and 786 civilian demonstrators presented before military courts since April 2017. The number of political prisoners in Venezuela, which was near 676 at the height of the 2017 protests, is said to be the highest since the Venezuelan military dictatorship of the 1950s.

There are “reasonable grounds to presume that crimes against humanity have been committed in Venezuela”.

It’s clear from the report that the regime’s main motivation is widespread and systematic political persecution, something that would fall under Article 7’s definition of “crimes against humanity.” It also identifies that, at least since February 2014 “the civilian population identified as, or suspected of being an opponent of the government, has been victim of an attack by the different agencies of the Venezuelan State, as well as by members of ‘colectivos’ acting in coordination with the State,” as part of a State policy.

It all stems from the PSUV’s “Bases Programáticas,” or programmatic bases, that define friends and enemies, the latter being “any and all social sectors” that oppose the government’s policies and who “must be attacked.” This hypothesis of an “internal enemy” has been evolving throughout the years and is ingrained in the regime’s policies regarding national security and defense. An example is resolution No. 008610, of January 27, 2015, that authorized the use of potentially deadly force in public order control by the military. This provision was the basis for the use of lethal force in the 2017 demonstrations and, as stated by the panel, served as legal shield to “ensure impunity for the murder of protesters by government security forces.”

Part of the same policy, affirms the panel, is the transformation of the armed forces into a tool to defend the government’s ideology, specifically through plans such as the Zamora Plan in its green phase, which converts the entire territory in a “theater of operations” where the military apparatus, with participation of colectivos, are activated to crush all forms of political dissent. It’s sustained by a complex network of bodies, legal tools, structures and public organisms that include CICPC, CONAS, DGCIM, GNB, PNB, and SEBIN, as well as State-dependent structures like the People’s Anti-Coup Command, the Bolivarian Workers Militia, the Special Brigade against the Actions of Groups Generating Violence, the “Shock Force” under the Strategic Operational Command, and the People’s System for Protection of Peace.

The State maintains total control of the food sector, including the supply, sale and distribution, all of which is used as a strategy described to the panel as “food apartheid.”

Even more significant is the experts’ framing of the humanitarian crisis as part of that attack against the opposition. The State maintains total control of the food sector, including the supply, sale and distribution, all of which is used as a strategy described to the panel as “food apartheid.” About this, the experts argue that Maduro has “weaponized” the crisis: “Food, medicines, and other basic necessities have become tools of political and social control, weapons with which to persecute their own people.” Limited supplies are used to reward loyalty, they say, and to punish those who have been deemed their enemy, forcing hundreds of thousands into exile.  

The experts hold the Maduro government responsible for what they label “one of the worst humanitarian crises the region has experienced,” a “man-made” crisis repeatedly denied by the regime that is the result of economic mismanagement and corruption, “driven by ideological and personal greed.”

The report will now be sent to the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor (OTP), as a contribution for the preliminary examination phase about the situation in Venezuela opened earlier this year. It is the second time the OTP opens a preliminary examination on Venezuela. The first one, conducted in 2006, was dismissed as the requirements needed to initiate an investigation in accordance with the Rome Statute had not been satisfied.

The cases, arguments and evidence in the report will have to be duly scrutinized if the ICC decides there are enough merits to open an investigation. This document itself and its conclusions do not hold legal binding status.

Yet, the establishment of the panel and its report are a remarkable and unprecedented effort in Latin America’s (and the OAS) recent history, particularly since the entry into force of the Rome Statute, as it translates into concrete actions the region’s growing commitment to defend democracy and human rights.

This document itself and its conclusions do not hold legal binding status.

Understanding this effort as the silver bullet that will solve Venezuela’s chaos is unrealistic. It may take years before any of the 156 persons, including Maduro, El Aissami, Defense Minister Padrino Lopez, Interior Minister Reverol Torres, Delcy and Jorge Rodriguez, named in the report as “intellectual authors behind the repression and the war on the internal enemy” go to trial at the ICC in The Hague.

But the fact that this happened at all, puts us closer to the now almost universal aspiration of seeing members of the Maduro regime pay for their crimes.

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