The United Nations rights office has blamed Venezuelan government forces for at least 73 deaths among protesters since a wave of unrest began in the South American country over four months ago.
Preliminary findings of a probe released by the office on Tuesday said Venezuelan security forces were allegedly responsible for at least 46 deaths while pro-government armed groups were responsible for 27 others since anti-government protests began in April.
The protests began over the government’s inability to recoup financial losses left behind by a global slump in oil prices while the opposition has also accused President Nicolas Maduro of trying to consolidate his power at the expense of the country’s democratic institutions.
Maduro has slammed the violence on the streets, saying the opposition and its backers in the region, mainly the United States, have capitalized on the public discontent to remove him from office.
A total of 125 people have been killed in anti-Maduro protests in Venezuela. The UN probe would not elaborate on who was behind the rest of the deaths.
The investigation, launched remotely in June by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein after Venezuela declined to allow access to the country, included 135 interviews between June 6 and July 31 with victims and their families, witnesses, civil society organizations, journalists, lawyers and doctors, among others.
Zeid said in the statement that Venezuela had used “systematic and excessive force” against protesters over the past four months.
“Several thousand people have been arbitrarily detained, many reportedly subjected to ill-treatment and even torture, while several hundred have been brought before military rather than civilian courts,” Zeid said in the statement, adding that the clear patterns of using disproportionate force against the demonstrators “show no signs of abating.”
He said the government was solely responsible for the growing number of rights violation cases.
“The responsibility for the human rights violations we are recording lies at the highest levels of government,” he said, adding that the violations had occurred amid constant attacks by the Government against the National Assembly and the Attorney-General's Office, resulting in the “breakdown of the rule of law in Venezuela.”
The situation escalated in Venezuela last month after the government decided to establish a new constitutional assembly. The body convened its first meeting on Friday after a nationwide vote in late July. The assembly has moved to sack senior dissident figures, including those overseeing the country’s judicial system.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court, also controlled by Maduro loyalists, ordered the arrest of a top opposition mayor. Ramon Muchacho, who administers the Caracas district of Chacao, a key site of anti-government protests, did not appear for the court hearing and called the 15-month jail sentence given to him as an effort to stamp out dissent.
Maduro has defended the dismissals of opposition officials as a necessary measure to restore calm to Venezuela. His opponents say the embattled president and allies are removing top opponents to consolidate power in the hands of the ruling socialist party.