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Rights Abuses Rampant in Venezuela Crackdown on Anti-Government Protests, Report Says

A year after protests against the government shook Venezuela, a new report by Amnesty International details cases of arbitrary detention, sexual abuse, and torture suffered by demonstrators caught in President Nicolas Maduro's crackdown.

by Andrea Noel and Alicia Hernández
Mar 24 2015, 6:20pm

Imagen por Eliezer Mantilla/AP

In February 2014, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Venezuela in response to historic levels of inflation, the second highest murder rate in the world excluding war zones, crippling shortages of basic goods, and increasing abuses of power.

More than a year since the anti-government movement erupted, the situation in the country has not improved, Amnesty International said in a new report, and rampant human rights violations that occurred in the government's quelling of the protests continue with impunity.

Forty-three people were killed in the violence, and 3,351 were arrested. Most were released but more than 1,000 still face charges and 27 remain in detention, according to the report published Tuesday by Amnesty International.

The report, titled "The Faces of Impunity," details the stories of several Venezuelan protesters who were arbitrarily detained or tortured while in custody. Prisoners faced instances of sexual abuse, death threats, and other forms of torture. Many of those released were forced to flee the country in the ensuing crackdown.

"Every day that passes without addressing the catalogue of human rights abuses that took place during the protests is another day of heart-breaking injustice for the victims and their families," Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International, wrote in the report's introduction.

Amnesty International also warned that if justice is not reached for the victims of the crackdown, authorities will feel emboldened to use more repression and violence against opposition voices.

"This must stop. People in Venezuela should be able to peacefully protest without fear of losing their lives or being unlawfully detained," Guevara said.

Related: Watch VICE News' full-length documentary Venezuela Rising.

A protester stands at a road blockade in the city of San Cristobal, Venezuela. (Photo by Luis Cobelo/VICE Mexico)

The militarized crackdown against the demonstrations, which initially began in response to a sexual assault of a female college student, quickly caused the protests to spread throughout Venezuela.

Earlier this month, jailed opposition activist Rodolfo "The Aviator" Gonzalez apparently killed himself in federal prison the night before he believed he would be transferred to a common prison, in a case not mentioned in the Amnesty report but emblematic of conditions for jailed protesters.

"The common jails in Venezuela are some of the most violent places on earth," Inti Rodriguez, a member of the human rights group Provea, told VICE News. "Here, there are political prisoners that are incarcerated for having exercised their constitutional rights, like the right to protest. They haven't been guaranteed due process."

Prominent opposition leaders such as Leopoldo Lopez were arrested after President Nicolas Maduro accused him and others of plotting a coup. The mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, is also behind bars after he was arrested in February.

"It isn't just something that happens with political prisoners," Nizar el Fakih, a human rights lawyer from Venezuela's Andrés Bello Catholic University, in an interview. "There have been severe denouncements of acts of psychological, moral, or physical aggression in Venezuelan prisons."

Related: Venezuela Denies 'Psychological Torture' Led Jailed Protester to Kill Himself.

The blockades in 2014 called 'guarimbas' originated in Tachira, where San Cristobal is located. (Photo by Luis Cobelo/VICE Mexico)

The report came as tensions rise between Washington and Caracas. On March 9, President Barack Obama issued an executive order declaring a "national emergency" due to the "extraordinary threat" posed by the crisis in Venezuela.

The president imposed sanctions on several Venezuelan government and security officials, blocking their assets in the US and prohibiting US persons from conducting business with them. The officials were targeted for their role in the anti-government crackdown.

"It's unfortunate that during a time when we've opened up engagement with every other nation in the Americas, Venezuela has opted to go in the opposite direction," a senior administration official said in a White House conference call.

Maduro responded by launching a campaign to gather 10 million signatures in opposition of the US sanctions, in anticipation of the April 10-11 Summit of the Americas in Panama City. The Maduro government also received support from Cuba, which called the US sanctions "arbitrary and aggressive."

According to Amnesty International, 238 accusations of human rights violations have been investigated by the Venezuelan public prosecutor's office. Only 13 have resulted in charges.

"What is absolutely certain is that in Venezuela human rights are being violated," el Fakih said. "The violations registered in 2014 and the beginning of 2015 are telling of an unprecedented situation in the last decades of the country."

Related: Cuba Throws 'Unconditional' Support to Venezuela After New US Sanctions.

Follow Andrea Noel on Twitter @MetabolizedJunk and Alicia Hernández @por_puesto.