Since Venezuela ratified the Rome Statute on 7 June 2000, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction over crimes against humanity perpetrated on the Venezuelan territory since 1 July 2002.
In order to assess whether to open an investigation the Prosecutor of the ICC has to determine whether crimes against humanity were committed in a widespread or systematic manner in Venezuela against a civilian population.
The adjective “widespread” refers to “the large-scale nature of the attack and the number of targeted persons”, while the adjective “systematic” refers to the “organised nature of the acts of violence and the improbability of their random occurrence”.
During the public hearing held by the OAS, several witnesses from the civil society will present evidence to the panel of expert to determine:
a) whether crimes against humanity were committed; and
b) whether they were committed in a widespread and systematic manner.
Four witnesses presented evidence during the public hearings on September 14 2017.
Julio Henriquez, from Foro Penal Venezuelano, describes the crimes in Venezuela that he states have become an impediment to international peace and security. He stated that although Venezuela appeared to be a democracy, there were mechanisms that were always in place to eliminate the dissidents and political opponents of the government within the legal and political framework and that the legal system is being politicized.
There has been 11,902 prisoners; 1058 have ended up with the label of a “political prisoner”; 566 are still in prison. The arrests are arbitrarily. Furthermore, the prisoners were not given medical treatment. 116 were murdered in prison. Based on the UN benchmarks defining arbitrary arrest, none of those arrested had any legitimate grounds for being incarcerated : they were arbitrarily arrested due to their perceived political affiliations. According to Mr Henriquez, the number of people arrested, killed and tortured show that the crimes were widespread and systematic with attacks happening nation-wide (only three states did not have political dissidents imprisoned).
According to Mr Henriquez, an important example of this policization of the legal system was displayed in 2009 when a judge ordered an incarerated person, who had been raped in the jail, to be let free, and immediately after such order by the judge, the judge herself was detained and put into prison for a number of years, where she was subjected to cruel and degrading treatment including rape. She is currently in house arrest. Her experiences, including that in the prison, was made public so that it would intimidate other judges. The same intimidation tactics can be seen in other examples as well.
A specific plan for National Defense implemented against those perceived as political dissidents was called Plan Zamora. Through this plan, the perceived political dissidents were systematically murdered and tortured in prison. Those who carried out the plan were not necessarily government officers; they were also civilians armed forces. But they are given the authority by the government to carry out such attacks.
Tamara Suju, Casla Institute, who represented the family members of the torture victims testified that she received a first-hand account of the victimisation in many cases and concluded that such acts were not sporadic but rather systematic and widespread.
According to her, under Maduro, collective torture tactics were implemented by through torture cells to extract information or confessions from victims. “White tortures” which would inflict physical pain leaving no marks on the body or psychological trauma, were recurrent. Ms Suju gave the example of a cell called “the tomb” which is a 2 by 1 meter room 5 storeys under the ground level where prisoners would be kept in isolation. She stated that: “Better known individuals are subject to white-tortures, but those that were protestors were subject to torture; systematically meant to leave a mark on them so that they would not forget and do it again” There were also sexual violence infliceted on detainees and electric shocks inflicted on prisoners indiscriminate of age, gender or physcial capabilites.
At least 222 were tortured simply because of they were participating in protesting. 84% of the tortured are under the age of 30 and several were minors. There is also a pattern of not giving individuals much needed medical attention. 268 people were brutally beaten. Toxic gases were used on at least 166 people. Lastly, the victims were not allowed to make contact with their lawyers and family.
Francisco Marquez, Vision Democratica, testified that he was himself a political dissident detained for 4 months. He was detained without any grounds, was not allowed to contact his lawyer or family and was told that “if he was not going to speak, they would make him speak”. He was labbeled as “fascist” and prison guards called them the “politicians”. He also witnessed first hand the torture, cruel and inhuman treatment of others while in detention. He witnessed a fellow detainee being beaten extensively. People were made to hear other detainees being tortured. Mr Marquez stated that some of the high level individuals in the hierarchy ordered and participated in the tortures. He named two of them who would visit the prisons and torture people. He states that it was public knowledge because for them having a bad reputation for torturing detainees would lead to them being rewarded by higher ranks in the government..
He further stated that the crimes were systematic and widespread. For example, half of the mayors are currently being persecuted or have arrest warrants issued against them.
Johanna Aguirre, widow of Alejandro Marquez testified that her husband was taken by the national guards as he was trying to escape because he was filming something that the national guards did not want to be seen doing. He was found in a hospital unconscious where he had been beaten up and did not receive proper medical care. The authorities did not why he was detained. The day before Mr Marquez’s funeral, a high level government offical appeared on public television stating that Mr Marquez was a “hired assassin” who was going to kill President Maduro. There was no investigation or evidence to support this allegations. After several autopsies, it was revealed that Mr Marquez died of head trauma from a blunt object.
She also stated that a trial was ongoing with regards to establishing the responsibility of the national guards involved but that they remained free and that no disciplinary action was taken against them so far despite their involvement in the death of her husband.
For more details on the witness statements see the summary of the OAS (in Spanish): Sesiones para analizar la situación en Venezuel1 (1).