In Venezuela Protests, Report Condemns Police's 'Pattern Of Abuse'

A Human Rights Watch report documents brutal force used by Venezuelan security forces against peaceful demonstrators — including beatings, shootings and, in some cases, torture. The report also shows how security forces work in cahoots with pro-government armed gangs, calling the abuses the worst they have seen in years.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now to Venezuela, where violent anti-government protests back in February left more than 40 people dead. Human Rights Watch released a report on the violence today. It says Venezuelan security forces in some cases beat protesters, shot them with rubber bullets and tortured them.

John Otis reports.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The Human Rights Watch report documents what the organization calls an alarming pattern of abuse by the Venezuelan police and national guard. In many cases, Human Rights Watch found that protesters and innocent bystanders were arbitrarily arrested and held for 48 hours or longer. Some detainees were subjected to brutal treatment.

JON OTIS, BYLINE: Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, helped prepare the report.

DANIEL WILKINSON: When we've seen violence, excessive force against protesters in places like Brazil and Chile, the government, the president, has come out and denounced that violence. In Venezuela, what we've seen is the government respond by repeatedly blaming all the violence on the protesters, on the political opposition.

MOISES GUANCHEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: One Venezuelan who was caught up in the violence is 19-year-old Moises Guanchez. He says he wasn't involved in the protests. He's a cook at a fast food restaurant at a shopping mall in the city of Los Teques. He was on the job on March 5th when National Guard troops burst into the food court looking for people who had taken part in that day's protest. Guanchez ran but was shot at point-blank range in the arm, thigh and buttocks with rubber bullets. The guardsmen then made him jog on his injured leg to a nearby hospital.

GUANCHEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: Guanchez said he needed four blood transfusions and is now receiving physical therapy so he can walk again.

The protests, which continue in some Venezuelan cities, erupted over rising crime, out-of-control inflation and food shortages. President Nicolas Maduro, who was elected last year following the death from cancer of longtime socialist leader Hugo Chavez, claims that the protesters are trying to overthrow his government.

Demonstrators have illegally blocked roads and some have thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces. More than 200 members of the police and National Guard have been injured and at least nine have died, according to the government.

But the Human Rights Watch report says the government's response has often been overwhelming and illegal.

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: In this March speech, cited in the report, President Maduro called upon armed pro-government gangs to help put down the protests. In addition, detainees have been insulted with political epithets, suggesting that the aim of the crackdown is to punish people for their political views.

Of the more than 2,700 people detained, about 200 remain in custody. Wilkinson says many have been denied their legal rights.

WILKINSON: Then these hearings are scheduled in the middle of the night before a judge and the lawyers are only allowed to see their detainees maybe five minutes before the hearing, so they really have no chance to review the evidence against them.

OTIS: NPR contacted the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington and the government press office in Caracas about the Human Rights Watch report but there was no immediate response. In previous statements, President Maduro and other government officials have claimed that any abuses by the police and National Guard were isolated incidents.

So far, 17 Venezuelan security officials have been detained for alleged human rights abuses.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Otis.

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