The Venezuelan government has conducted systematic human rights abuses against its own people, according to a new report that could bolster the push by U.S. lawmakers to impose sanctions against President Nicolas Maduro’s regime.
The report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), released Monday, documented abuses against more than 150 victims and at least 10 cases of torture. State security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained protesters before subjecting them to further abuses, including beatings, electric shocks, burns, and delayed medical treatment, the report said.
At least 41 people have died since protests against Maduro began in February. HRW investigators in March conducted several interviews with victims, witnesses, medical professionals, journalists, and lawyers for the report.
While some of the protesters have thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces, the report said forces have frequently abused unarmed and nonviolent protesters. Other victims of abuse were journalists attempting to report on the demonstrations and bystanders not participating in them.
HRW said their findings suggest that the forces’ goal was not to "enforce the law or disperse protests" but "punish people for their perceived political views."
"The fact that the abuses were carried out repeatedly, by multiple security forces, in multiple locations across three states and the capital—including in controlled environments such as military installations and other state institutions, and over the six-week period Human Rights Watch reviewed—supports the conclusion that the abuses were part of a systematic practice," the report said.
The report also noted that security forces have collaborated with armed pro-government gangs known as "colectivos" to attack protesters and bystanders. Human rights groups say the colectivos are responsible for as many as a dozen deaths and have adopted the repressive tactics used by Cuba’s communist government.
Some U.S. lawmakers have expressed outrage about the abuses and called for sanctions against Venezuelan government officials and those working on their behalf. Rep. Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) introduced a bill in March that directs President Obama to impose property, financial, and visa sanctions against human rights violators. The bill will be marked-up before the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere on Friday.
Rubio said in a statement that "the political crisis in Venezuela deserves more attention."
"It is equally important for the United States to take action against individuals ordering or committing human rights violations in Venezuela, and I hope the Senate will soon adopt through the sanctions legislation I and others have introduced," he said.
Proponents of sanctions argue that they could pressure Maduro to govern more inclusively. Maduro recently agreed to create a "truth commission" to investigate the deaths linked to the protests but did not accept the opposition’s demand to release all jailed protesters.
Maduro’s approval rating has plummeted to 37 percent as residents and protesters continue to blame his administration for rampant crime, inflation, and shortages of basic goods.
The Venezuelan leader insists that the domestic protests are part of a U.S.-backed conspiracy to topple his administration, a claim U.S. officials deny.
A State Department spokesperson told the Washington Free Beacon that "such allegations are baseless and false."
"We’ve seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela," the spokesperson said. "These efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan government to deal with the grave situation it faces. They should be focusing on addressing the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people."
U.S. officials have previously indicated a willingness to apply sanctions but say they want to give talks between the government and opposition a chance to work. The spokesperson said the State Department has "promoted honest dialogue" in addition to calling for an end to violence and the release of jailed protesters.
The HRW report included details of specific cases of abuse that demonstrate the harsh methods used by security forces and the lack of due process for detainees.
National guardsmen detained one Venezuelan, a 22-year-old identified by the pseudonym Juan Sanchez in the report, on March 5 while he was walking to a bank in Caracas. The guardsmen kicked him, beat him, and fired a rubber bullet into his right thigh from point-blank range to punish him for participating in a protest earlier that day. Sanchez was then driven to a military installation and forced to take his off clothes before being handcuffed to a metal pole and administered electric shocks.
Sanchez was taken to a hospital but denied full medical treatment by the guardsmen. He was then driven back to the military installation, where the guardsmen called him a "fascist" and continued to kick him.