The research center CASLA Institute debuted a new report on the systematic use of torture in Venezuela at the Organization of American States (OAS) on Wednesday, documenting over 100 cases of the state torturing political dissidents in 2018 alone.
The report is the latest in a string of similar studies spanning the entirety of the Maduro regime finding that the socialist regime of dictator Nicolás Maduro uses beatings, rape, psychological torture, and electrocution on individuals arrested for failure to support the regime. Among the most prominent changes in the use of torture documented by CASLA this year is the increased use of torture against members of the military, suggesting growing discontent within the army ranks towards Maduro.
Victims of torture interviewed for the study also increasingly noted that, while they could not identify their torturers and the men did not use their real names around the victims, many possessed a distinct Cuban accent, easily distinguishable from Venezuelan Spanish. The Cuban communist regime has long supported its Venezuelan ally, and some reports suggest that as many as nearly 100,000 Cuban regime agents are actively working to keep Maduro in power in Venezuela.
The OAS has begun efforts to mount a case against the Maduro regime for crimes against humanity to be presented to an international tribunal, likely the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“When we describe Venezuela as an open-air concentration camp, where those who live there are subject to all sorts of arbitrary abuse, systematic repression, and state terrorism, that is not just a slogan,” CASLA executive director Tamara Suju told the OAS. “This is the way to describe the system in place in Venezuela.”
Suju revealed that her group had confirmed at least 106 cases of torture, 61.3 percent against members of the military. Last year, the same report found that a majority of the incidents of torture documented were against civilians. Among the types of torture on record were “electrocution, drowning, and asphyxia.” Six of the cases mentioned also involved rape by members of state security.
Suju went into explicit detail about some of the torture, particularly electroshock. In one case, she told the OAS, one of the victims was electrocuted through their underarms, causing the person’s toenails to explode.
She noted that, with the shift from civilian to military torture, the number of those tortured decreased because “when you detain and torture one officer, you torture them all … that message gets to the troops.” While the total number of instances of torture increased, the percentage among military victims was far smaller because of the tighter social network in the armed forces, she argued.
CALSA held two government institutions responsible for the torture: the secret police (SEBIN) and the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM). Yet Suju repeatedly emphasized that, according to survivors, the men conducting the torture spoke with Cuban accents.
The Cuban communist dictatorship has offered senior members of its military and police forces, who have decades of experience in torturing dissidents, to Venezuela. According to Venezuelan retired Maj. Gen. Antonio Rivero, who fled the country and later denounced the Maduro dictatorship, as many as 92,700 Cuban officials were actively helping support the regime within Venezuela’s borders in 2017.
The head of the OAS, Secretary General Luis Almagro, suggested that the ICC must evaluate these cases.
“The question to the International Criminal Court would be: do these cases of torture not have the possibility of achieving international justice?” he asked in remarks to Voice of America. “Do they not have before the ICC the possibility of collecting these accusations, analyzing [them], processing these testimonies?”
A report like CASLA’s, which identifies hundreds of individual cases of torture, could present sufficient evidence to find Venezuela in violation of international law.
Crimes against humanity fall under the international legal category of jus cogens, meaning they are considered so universally accepted as crimes that all states have universal jurisdiction to impose the norms against them. Executive immunity and non-extradition laws also have no bearing on the ability of a country to try a jus cogens crime. Others in this category include war crimes and genocide.
In an official OAS report from May, Almagro had already accused the Venezuelan regime of “the systematic, tactical, and strategic use of murder, imprisonment, torture, rape, and other forms of sexual violence as tools to terrorize th epeople of Venezuela in a planned campaign to crush opposition to the regime.”
Some survivors, former political prisoners, have also independently offered their testimonies. In a particularly harrowing recent interview, student opposition leader Lorent Saleh described his four years behind bars, first in the “tomb” prison — a sophisticated center he described as “Ruso-Cuban” — and then in the Helicoide, the former shopping mall where beatings and electrocution are common.
Saleh says he saw regular beatings in the Helicoide, people “crucified” as a form of torture, and prisoners forced to attack each other. In the “tomb,” torturers would reportedly draw significant blood from a political prisoner before interrogation to make them lightheaded or force them into stress positions for up to a week without being allowed to move.