World and Nation

U.N. voices worry over excessive force in Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela — A group of U.N. human rights experts voiced concern Thursday over reports of excessive use of force against protesters and journalists during the recent wave of anti-government demonstrations that has spread across the country.

The report came as a soldier and a civilian were shot and killed in Caracas during an extended confrontation between residents, government supporters and troops. The killings brought the death toll to 21 since mid-February, according to figures maintained by the government; it is not clear, however, if all of the earlier deaths cited by the government were directly related to the protests.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement that a group of six human rights special rapporteurs was asking the Venezuelan government to provide information on the alleged episodes of torture, arbitrary detention, and use of force.

It also expressed shock at the mounting number of deaths.

“We are deeply disturbed by the allegations of multiple cases of arbitrary detention of protesters,” said the statement, which was issued on the experts’ behalf. “Some were reportedly beaten — and in some cases severely tortured — by security forces, taken to military facilities, kept in incommunicado detention, and denied access to legal assistance.”

The statement did not give details, but there have been several cases in which detained protesters said they had been beaten or physically abused. The government has said it is investigating some cases.

The national prosecutor, Luisa Ortega, said Thursday that 1,322 people had been arrested and received court appearances during the protests and that 92 were still in custody, including 15 members of the security forces suspected of human rights abuses. She said her office was committed to defending human rights.

The U.N. statement also expressed concern over reports that journalists had been detained and harassed.

The protests began early last month and have become an outlet for many government opponents to express rejection of the socialist-inspired revolution begun by the former president, Hugo Chávez, who died last year. The protests have been fed by discontent over high inflation, violent crime, and product shortages.

The U.N. statement acknowledged that President Nicolás Maduro had called for talks but added, “The reconciliatory dialogue that is so deeply needed in Venezuela is not going to take place if political leaders, students, media groups, and journalists are harassed and intimidated by the authorities.”

The government has held televised meetings in the framework of what it calls a peace conference, although those meetings have been boycotted by the student groups that have spearheaded the protests and by most prominent opposition politicians.

The government said it would hold a round of such meetings Friday in San Cristóbal in the western state of Táchira, on the border with Colombia.