Venezuela prosecutor chides government over military tribunals

Reuters News
|
Posted: May 24, 2017 9:47 AM

By Eyanir Chinea and Alexandra Ulmer

CARACAS (Reuters) - Deepening her split with unpopular President Nicolas Maduro's government, Venezuela's chief prosecutor on Wednesday accused security officers of excessive force and condemned the use of military tribunals to judge protesters.

After nearly two months of massive anti-government rallies demanding early presidential elections, fissures have appeared in the hitherto publicly homogenous socialist administration.

In a speech on Wednesday, prosecutor Luisa Ortega said 55 people had been killed in unrest, around 1,000 others injured, and 346 properties burned or looted as chaos flares across the oil-rich country reeling from economic crisis.

In one particularly controversial case, Ortega said investigations showed 20 year-old student Juan Pernalete was killed by a tear gas canister fired from close range by a National Guard, not by a pistol as officials had suggested.

"Firing tear gas directly on people is banned," she said, holding up a canister at a press conference she was forced to give at an alternative venue after a power outage in her office.

More than half of the injuries have been caused by security forces, she added, condemning violence on both sides.

Ortega said her office was also investigating seven cases of military courts trying people who should be in normal civil courts. "We're worried about the situation of those detained in military courts," Ortega said, demanding access to detainees.

Rights group Penal Forum says 338 people have faced proceedings in military tribunals in recent days, with 175 still detained.

Falcon state in northwestern Venezuela on Wednesday said people caught stealing "strategic materials," like cables, from government companies would also be tried in military courts, as per Maduro's new security plan.

"SHAM" VOTES

Angry Venezuelans barricaded streets in parts of Caracas and the opposition held another protest on Wednesday as the announcement of two election dates failed to appease anger.

The pro-government electoral council on Tuesday said voting for a controversial "constituent assembly" would be held in July and delayed state elections in December.

Maduro foes countered that was a sham designed to confuse Venezuelans, prompt infighting among the opposition over strategy, and allow the unpopular leftist government to dodge free and fair elections they would likely lose.

Opposition lawmakers say the assembly, whose 540 members will be elected on a municipal level and by community groups like workers, will be filled with government stooges who will merely obey Maduro's orders to rewrite the constitution.

"Once installed, this constituent assembly will eliminate governorships, mayors, and the National Assembly," said opposition lawmaker Tomas Guanipa.

"There's been a break in Venezuela's constitutional order, and the streets are our way to rescue it," he added.

Maduro says he is facing an "armed insurrection" and the constituent assembly, a super body that will supersede all other public powers, is the way to restore peace to Venezuela.

Opposition supporters were planning to march to the electoral council on Wednesday, although National Guard soldiers were in place to stop them, and teargas was fired in at least one place. Over and over in the last weeks, troops and police have faced off with masked youths hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.

RIOTS AND LOOTING

Looting, barricades and riots are now commonplace around Venezuela, as the protests spin out of control, given hunger, hopelessness, easy access to weapons, and gangs taking advantage of the chaos.

In many places, schools are canceled, public transport is halted, and streets are barricaded. Some neighborhoods look like war zones after nighttime pillaging of bakeries and warehouses.

At some intersections, hooded young men ask passersby for money to "collaborate with the resistance." Traffic was blocked in various parts of the capital early on Wednesday.

The trouble has been particularly bad this week in Barinas, the home state of Maduro's mentor and predecessor Hugo Chavez that the socialists regard as the "cradle of the revolution."

Seven people died in protests there in the last few days, according to the state prosecutor.

Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader elected in 2013, paints the opposition as coup-mongers seeking to stoke violence and overthrow his "21st century Socialism."

Over 2,700 people have been arrested since early April, with more than 1,100 still behind bars, according to Penal Forum.

(Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Mircely Guanipa, Corina Pons, Andrew Cawthorne, Andreina Aponte, and Brian Ellsworth; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Marguerita Choy)