Venezuela's intelligence agencies are committing crimes against humanity as part of a plan orchestrated at the highest level of government to repress dissent, U.N. experts said on Tuesday.
A team tasked with probing alleged violations in Venezuela said it had uncovered how members of military and state intelligence services were part of a well-coordinated structure implementing a scheme to stifle opposition.
"This plan was orchestrated at the highest political level, led by President Nicolas Maduro and supported by other senior authorities," Marta Valinas, chair of the UN's Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, told reporters.
"In doing so, grave crimes and human rights violations are being committed, including acts of torture and sexual violence."
The mission, which was created by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2019, already warned in its first report two years ago that Maduro and top government ministers were behind likely crimes against humanity.
In its latest report, it delved into the chains of command, and how intelligence services were used to quash opposing voices, listing a number of high-level officials by name.
The report pointed to how Maduro and others in his inner circle were involved in "selecting targets" for detention by intelligence agents, including political opponents.
The mission - which has never been granted access to Venezuela- based its findings on nearly 250 confidential interviews, as well as legal documents.
‘Torture ordered’ by Maduro
It said it had documented the cases of 122 victims "subjected to torture, sexual violence and/or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" by agents with the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM).
The mission said it had also investigated at least 51 cases of torture and ill-treatment of detainees by the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) since 2014.
They included "opposition politicians, journalists, protesters, and human rights defenders," it said, adding that most of the abuse took place in the El Helicoide detention centre in Caracas.
Former SEBIN employees had told investigators that in some cases, "torture was ordered directly by President Maduro," the report said, listing methods including electric shocks and asphyxiation.
"Both SEBIN and DGCIM made extensive use of sexual and gender-based violence to torture and humiliate its detainees," the mission said.
The experts said Venezuelan authorities had failed to hold perpetrators of abuses accountable.
"The human rights violations by state intelligence agencies, orchestrated at the highest political levels, have taken place in a climate of almost complete impunity," mission member Francisco Cox said.
Speaking to reporters, he stressed the importance of investigating all alleged abuses and bringing the perpetrators to justice.
The International Criminal Court has said it will investigate alleged crimes against humanity in Venezuela, but Cox called for all "authorities, both national and international, that are competent to investigate."
In a separate report on Tuesday, the mission also focused on rights abuses against people living in gold mining areas of Venezuela's southern Bolivar state.
"Both state and non-state actors have committed human rights violations and crimes against the local population in the struggle for control over mining areas," it said, pointing to killings, disappearances, extortion and sexual violence.
The experts said that the authorities had not only failed to prevent and investigate such abuses but appeared to have actively colluded with non-state actors in parts of the region.
Mission member Patricia Tappata Valdez described the situation in Bolivar as "deeply troubling."
The mission members are due to present their findings to the U.N. rights council next week.
They will also face a council vote in early October on whether they can continue their work, with Venezuela arguing that the mission is superfluous, since it is cooperating with a U.N. rights office monitoring team.
The mission members say their investigations are complimentary.
"Venezuela is still facing a profound human rights crisis," Valins said.