Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz, a former loyalist to the late dictator Hugo Chávez, has charged the former head of the country’s national guard with “serious and systematic” human rights violations, her office announced on Thursday.
The office alleged that Antonio Benavides had permitted his troops to use “excessive force” in a series of clashes between protesters and security forces, which included the unnecessary use of firearms, the torturing of suspects, and conducting property raids without a warrant. It claimed that Benavides had done this on a “great number of occasions.”
Benavides was removed from his post last week after videos emerged of his soldiers firing at dissidents, but he was later reinstated as head of Venezuela’s Capital District government.
Ortega, who was a close ally of the Chávez regime, recently became a prominent critic of the Nicolás Maduro’s government and has urged Venezuelans to reject his plans to rewrite the country’s constitution. She has also described the country’s supreme court as the “greatest obstacle to peace” and accused Maduro of “state terrorism.”
The announcement will escalate tensions between Ortega and the government, which has already frozen her assets and prevented her from leaving the country. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court also issued a ruling increasing the powers of the pro-government investigator Tarek William Saab, allowing him to conduct criminal investigations in place of Ortega.
However, Ortega refused to recognize the ruling, condemning it as a shameless attempt to dissolve her authority as Venezuela’s top law enforcement official. “These rulings are giving the power to investigate human rights abuses to people who possibly are violating those rights,” she said.
In 2015, the Obama administration sanctioned Benavides and a number of other military officers, after a series of violent clashes between his forces and civilians, which killed over 40 people. The sanctions included the freezing of assets and indefinite visa restrictions.
“In various cities in Venezuela, members of the GNB used force against peaceful protestors and journalists, including severe physical violence, sexual assault, and firearms,” the White House said at the time.
Violence has now become a daily occurrence in Venezuela as protesters clash with security forces to demand fresh elections amid the country’s escalating economic, social, and political crisis. So far, at least 74 people have died in the violence, while thousands have sustained serious injuries.