The International Criminal Court on Wednesday announced the opening of a formal probe into claims that President Nicolás Maduro’s security forces participated in the torture and extrajudicial killings of political opponents, years after the international community began looking into alleged rights abuses in the socialist police state. ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan warned against attempts to interfere with his investigation, the first probe of its kind in Latin America, during a televised news conference at the conclusion of his three-day visit to Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, on Wednesday.
Standing next to Khan, Maduro called recent meetings a “step forward” in relations between the government and the international tribunal, which began a preliminary investigation in February 2018 focused on allegations of abuse during a brutal 2017 government crackdown on dissidents participating in street uprisings against the president.
Maduro said that he respected the prosector’s decision and would cooperate but that he disagreed with the prosecutor’s criteria for opening a probe. “Venezuelan doors are open because we want the truth, we want justice, and we want to get better,” he said.
The president’s regime is in its strongest political position in years, with Maduro having consolidated his grip on power after hopes in the opposition’s ability to reverse authoritarianism and economic collapse petered out. The Lima Group — a collection of Latin American nations and Canada that had called for the alleged abuses to be investigated — is now in tatters.
United Nations investigators have repeatedly reported patterns of rights abuses in the authoritarian country that constitute “crimes against humanity.”
A report by the United Nations’ top human rights body last year concluded that Maduro and members of his inner circle gave orders, coordinated activities and supplied resources for arbitrary detentions, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings, The Washington Post has reported. It recommended that the findings be probed by international courts.
One political detainee told U.N. investigators of being held in a coffin-like vessel in the basement of intelligence police headquarters. Another female witness who was arrested following street protests told a U.N. panel she was tortured with electric shocks and threatened with rape.
Wednesday’s ICC decision was welcomed by rights advocates and the embattled U.S.-supported opposition, whose leader, Juan Guaidó, said the formal opening of the investigation “vindicates the right to obtain justice that has been denied in Venezuela for the victims and their families.”
“This decision — the first in Latin American history — gives hope of justice to the hundreds of victims of brutal repression by the Maduro regime,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch.
Khan didn’t lay out the breadth of the ICC’s investigation Wednesday, and it could be years before any charges are laid. Both Venezuela’s opposition and the government have asked the ICC to look into alleged crimes perpetrated by their rivals.
Maduro expressed hope that a three-page memorandum of understanding he signed with the prosecutor Wednesday would allow Venezuelan authorities to carry out their own legal proceedings into the alleged offenses.
“I am the first who wants to know the truth. I am the first who wants to see justice,” he said. “I am a man of God.”
Anthony Faiola contributed to this report.
(c) The Washington Post, 2021