By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - The United States denounced the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday for suppressing protests and called for free elections.
"This is an economic, political and humanitarian crisis that demands the world's attention," Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told a U.S.-hosted panel of Venezuelan activists and experts held on the sidelines of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
"The Venezuelan government is in the midst of destroying human rights and democracy in Venezuela. It is conducting a campaign of violence and intimidation against unarmed demonstrators, businesses, civil society and freely elected political opposition," she said.
The Maduro government calls the protesters violent coup-mongers, supported by the United States.
At least 65 people have died in unrest since early April, with hundreds injured. Some 3,000 people have been arrested, with around one-third still behind bars, according to rights group Penal Forum.
"Over 300 people arrested at demonstrations have been taken to military courts. They are being treated as a form of prisoners of war," Alonso Medina Roa of Penal Reform, which is providing legal defense to hundreds, told the event.
Maduro's foes are demanding general elections, freedom for jailed activists, humanitarian aid, and autonomy for the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
In May, Maduro announced a plan for a "constituent assembly" with powers to rewrite the constitution, in what he says is a bid to bring back peace. But opponents say he is seeking to dodge national elections and has ignored demands for an end to crushing food and medicine shortages.
"The Venezuela regime is fooling no one. Recognizing that its grip on power has slipped, it is yet again trying to change the rules of the game," Haley said.
"There are many things that could be done to help the people of Venezuela. But they really only need one thing: a free election."
Venezuela ranks last in Latin America for transparency, said Mercedes de Freitas, executive director of the Venezuela chapter of Transparency International. She blamed "extremely weak institutions and laws constantly being changed to increase opacity."
"The food distribution system is organized in such a way that this group of militaries has a hold on it," she said.
Louis Charbonneau of Human Rights Watch said: "There is an enormous concentration of power, there are no independent institutions left to act as a check on executive power."
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)