Over the past ten weeks of protests in Venezuela, security forces have detained well over 3,200 people, with over a third of them remaining in custody. The allegations of mistreatment during arrests and detention has ballooned, according to human rights groups.
The reports come as authorities have sent demonstrators to military courts, where they can face charges of treason and rebellion that carry long sentences. The fierce crackdown on the protesters along with the efforts to disband the legislature and change the constitution has brought international condemnation and fueled debate over whether or not Venezuela is headed toward a dictatorship.
Nearly as many people have been detained in the past two months during anti-government demonstrations as in all of 2014, a year of intense protests in Venezuela, said Nizar El Fakih, director of the human rights organization Proiuris.
Demonstrators have reported being picked up by security forces that manhandle them and hold them in overcrowded detention centers. The worst treatment is said to be meted out by the intelligence service and the military whose prisoners have endured regular beatings and sometimes other forms of physical and sexual abuse, according to interviews with former detainees, defense attorneys, and human rights advocates.
The current unrest began with peaceful marches against what demonstrators call an increasingly authoritarian government and economic crisis. But since then the demonstrations are now street battles between protesters hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails at National Guard and police, who fire water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets. At least 70 people have died, and more than 1,300 have been injured in the demonstrations.
Maduro’s administrations say the street protests are aimed at overthrowing the government. Authorities have begun to send protestors to military tribunals, with more than 300 facing charges of rebellion against the state, which carries sentences of decades in prison. This shift comes as the Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz has emerged as a critic of the Maduro administration.
Human rights Watch documented a case in May in which 40 people were arrested near a food company that had been looted the day before, and brought before a military judge on charges of rebellion. During the hearing, some showed bruises and said they had been beaten by members of the National Guard with aluminum rods and baseball bats.
“At least 15 said they were forced to eat raw pasta with human excrement — the officers allegedly put tear gas powder in their noses so they would be forced to open their mouths to eat,” the Human Rights Watch report read.