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Venezuela tries to stop ICC from resuming investigation into crimes against humanity

The International Criminal Court rejected claims by Caracas that it has not received sufficient details about the alleged violations. Judges in The Hague feel the Maduro government is dragging its feet on national probes

Isabel Ferrer
Venezuela
The security forces of the Venezuelan government during a protest by the opposition.RAÚL ROMERO

The legal representatives of the government of Venezuela on Tuesday appealed the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s decision to resume an investigation into human rights abuses allegedly committed in the country in 2017, and which may constitute crimes against humanity. The government’s legal team claims not to have received detailed information from the ICC prosecutor, Karim Khan, about the crimes allegedly perpetrated during the anti-government protests that occurred in the South American country between April and July 2017 and which resulted in more than 100 deaths.

The ICC Prosecutor’s Office opened a formal investigation in 2021 and signed a collaboration agreement with Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro. A year later, Caracas said that Venezuelan judges were working on the case and therefore the ICC should withdraw because the international court can only act if the country in question cannot or will not do so on its own, as per the complementarity principle. In 2022, however, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, called for the investigations to be resumed due to the lack of progress in the country.

The crimes under investigation include extrajudicial executions, torture and arbitrary detentions, and were allegedly perpetrated during the anti-government protests that took place between April and July 2017. During that period, Venezuela’s Supreme Court had blocked the powers of the National Assembly, which was controlled by the opposition, and Venezuelans took to the streets. More than seven million citizens have left their country since 2015, fleeing the economic crisis and government repression, according to the United Nations.

At the beginning of Tuesday’s session, Ben Emmerson, one of the Venezuelan government’s lawyers, said that the ICC Prosecutor’s Office “never pointed out high-ranking officials suspected of any of the crimes that were intended to be investigated: there were no ages, dates or locations specific to the incidents, the group or the people responsible for them.” Because the information received was so vague, it could not be investigated as required, the lawyer claimed. In response, Prosecutor Nivedha Thiru said the ICC was not required to go into details at the beginning of the investigation, but that the documents sent to Caracas were “specific and sufficient for the [Venezuelan] State to respond and for the ICC the prosecutor to have the flexibility to protect victims and witnesses, given the context.”

The hearing devolved into a continuous back and forth of technical arguments refuted by both parties, with special emphasis regarding the translation of a series of documents considered essential, but rejected. Venezuela sent a submission in Spanish so that it could be taken into account instead of in French or English, the working languages of the ICC. Attorney Emmerson noted that Spanish is one of the official languages of this court, and “it is not Venezuela’s responsibility if the Court disregarded the majority of the evidence that was presented.” The Prosecutor’s Office replied that Venezuela knew that it had to translate those documents and that the Appeals Chamber did not err by not requesting the translation, “because States must provide the required information in one of the working languages.” On the other hand, ICC prosecutors also said the information on five cases that Venezuela claims to be already investigating at the national level is very limited and not very specific, and does not allow the court to get a clear sense of whether these national investigations are moving forward.

The head of the ICC’s Office of the Public Counsel for Victims, Paolina Massida, said that it seems to victims “that Venezuela is not, nor will it be in the future, investigating the crimes against their families and friends.”

In September 2018, several countries asked the ICC to open an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity perpetrated in Venezuela since February 2014. The group was made up of Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay and Peru, and the request was accompanied by a report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). That document listed the crimes under investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office. The then chief prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, who led the preliminary examination of this case, said in 2020 that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that crimes that fall within the jurisdiction of this court have occurred in Venezuela.”

In November 2021, a new prosecutor, Karim Khan, decided to open an investigation to probe crimes that may have been committed under the Maduro administration. Khan and Maduro signed a collaboration agreement in Caracas, and the Chavista leader warned that “we do not share the decision, but we respect it.” A year later, the Prosecutor’s Office received a Venezuelan request that the ICC’s work be postponed, as investigations were already being carried out by national authorities. The principle of complementarity, which makes the ICC a last resort, has also been invoked during the appeal. “Venezuela, as a sovereign State, is already investigating and has cooperated with the ICC,” Emmerson himself stated. Since 2017, some 200 members of the police and the army have been accused and convicted of human rights violations, as announced by the Venezuelan government in April 2022. According to the opposition, this was done precisely to avoid an investigation by the international justice system.

In June 2023, and in view of the fact that “the internal criminal processes of Caracas” did not reflect the scope of the case, the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber authorized the Prosecutor’s Office to resume the investigation. The judges considered that there were “inexplicable periods of inactivity.” Shortly after, Venezuela presented an appeal against this decision, which was followed by a written response from the Prosecutor’s Office. “This entire process has a clear political motivation based on a false accusation of crimes against humanity that have never occurred,” said a Venezuelan government statement. The ICC has allowed victims to testify assisted by their lawyers, and the three parties will meet again this Wednesday in the second hearing of the appeal.

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