Venezuelan officials in the government of President Nicolás Maduro have committed crimes against humanity, a panel of experts said Tuesday, recommending their finding be forwarded for possible prosecution.
Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organisation of American States (OAS), said he will forward the three-member panel's 400-page report and a mountain of supporting evidence to the International Criminal Court.
Senior government officials in Venezuela clearly used the state as an instrument to terrorise its people, he said.
"These crimes are an affront to the conscience of humanity and the welfare of all," Almagro said in a statement.
The report — drawing a sharp response from Venezuelan officials who called it "nothing more than a grotesque media farce" — documents 131 alleged murders perpetrated by security forces or pro-government armed civilian groups — known as "colectivos" — during street protests in 2014 and 2017.
It identified 8,292 executions outside of the judicial process since 2015 and more than 12,000 people arbitrarily detained since the presidential elections of 2013, including more than 1,300 political prisoners.
"The widespread and systematic targeting of opponents of the regime or suspected 'enemies of the state,' constitute the crime against humanity," the report says. "These acts, for which there is no legal basis, did not take place spontaneously or in isolation, but instead reflect a policy put in place by the Government of Venezuela through acts directed by the highest State authorities."
The international panel designated by the OAS secretary general included Buenos Aires Province Human Rights Secretary Santiago Cantón, Canadian Irwin Cotler and Costa Rican Manuel Ventura.
They drew their conclusions after five hearings held at the OAS headquarters in late-2017 with testimony from 26 witnesses. They collected documents from victims, relatives of victims and more than 40 non-governmental and international organisations.
The document identifies 11 men, including President Maduro and Vice-President Tareck El Aissami, as the masterminds of the repression.
"Maduro could wind up in jail" said Cantón.
Venezuelan diplomats in Washington fired back saying the findings were prepared by "anti-Venezuelan activists" relying on testimony of "criminal fugitives."
It is part of a "propaganda campaign against the Venezuelan state, whose sole objective is to overthrow the Constitutional Government of President Nicolas Maduro," Venezuelan diplomats said in a statement.
Maduro in recent days won an election to a second six-year term as president in a vote his leading challenger called fraudulent and banned opposition parties rejected as an illegitimate victory.
The panel presented its report after the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, announced a preliminary investigation had been launched into alleged crimes committed by Venezuelan police and security forces.
A preliminary investigation is the first step toward a possible full investigation that could lead to charges before the international court.
The International Criminal Court, governed by an international treaty called the Rome Statute, is the first permanent international criminal court. It investigates and prosecutes individuals accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Venezuela was the first Latin American country to ratify the Rome Statute in December 2002.