Venezuela’s former National Guard chief charged, street clashes continue
(CNN)Venezuela’s Attorney General Luisa Ortega on Thursday announced charges against the former head of the national guard, accusing him of systematic human rights violations during sometimes deadly anti-government demonstrations.
The announcement came amid fresh clashes between police and protesters on the rain-soaked streets of Caracas. A day earlier, Venezuela’s Supreme Court banned Ortega from leaving the country and ordered her assets frozen, ahead of a hearing scheduled for July 4.
That inquiry, which was requested by an ally of embattled President Nicolas Maduro, will seek to determine if Ortega committed unspecified “grave errors while in her position.”
Ortega, a vocal critic of Maduro’s government, could face a trial.
Ortega’s office, in a statement Thursday, said former National Guard Commander Antonio Benavides Torres has been charged in connection with “serious and systematic human rights violations” during the ongoing demonstrations.
Benavides Torres was sanctioned for human rights abuses by the White House in 2015. This month, Human Rights Watch accused him — along with other high-level officials — of failing to take steps to prevent or punish violations.
Benavides Torres was removed from his National Guard post last week and named head of government of the Capital District.
The attorney general’s statement, referring to alleged abuses by authorities during more than 80 days of demonstrations, said: “In a great number of these incidents, there is evidence of excessive use of force in repressing protests.”
The political turmoil gripping the country took a surreal turn on Wednesday with an audacious attack on the Supreme Court, with grenades and gunfire being launched from a police helicopter.
That helicopter was found Wednesday in a rural part of the country, but the man authorities say piloted the aircraft — Oscar Perez — is still on the run.
Ortega has recently accused Maduro’s government of committing “state terrorism” by stripping citizens of their right to protest, trying them in military courts and carrying out raids without consulting courts. “We continue to witness the rupture of the constitutional order. The constitution keeps on being violated and the government institutions are being dismantled,” she said.
Pedro Carreo, the lawmaker who requested the pre-trial hearing, has told reporters that he believe Ortega is not in her right mind and will convene a medical board to assess the attorney general’s recent behavior.
“It is evident that this lady is not in her right mind, It is clear that this lady is not normal,” Carreo said.
As it strafed the court building and the Interior Ministry in Caracas on Tuesday, attackers fired gunshots and lobbed grenades, officials said. It was unclear how a rogue police helicopter could have circled high-profile buildings in the Venezuelan capital without being shot down. Witnesses and local journalists said the assault went on for about two hours.
No one was injured, but the assault was a dramatic escalation of the months-long crisis engulfing the regime of President Maduro, who called the attack an attempted coup.
None of those involved in the attack appear to have been tracked down. Venezuela has asked Interpol to issue a red notice for Perez, according to Nstor Luis Reverol, the county’s minister of interior, justice and peace. A red notice alerts authorities in other countries, including border officials, that someone is wanted.
The helicopter was later located in the seaside state of Vargas, Venezuelan state news agency AVN reported. Photos published on the verified Twitter feed for Venezuela’s Vice President Tareck El Aissami show the helicopter in a clearing.
Months of chaos
Venezuela is in the throes of a political and humanitarian crisis which has brought thousands of people onto the streets in mass protests demanding a change of government.
On Thursday, protesters and police again clashed during a march to the nation’s electoral headquarters, with police firing tear gas and making dozens of arrests, according to posts on social media.
Soaring inflation and widespread shortages of medicines, food and other essentials have infuriated many people, who are struggling to afford even basic necessities.
Under former President Hugo Chavez, who was Maduro’s mentor, oil revenue fueled Venezuela’s economy. However, falling oil prices have made state subsidies unsustainable.
Anti-government protesters want Maduro to step down, accusing him of eroding democracy. Maduro, meanwhile, has sent the Venezuelan military onto the streets to maintain order, leading to deadly clashes. According to numbers released by the attorney general’s office, at least 80 civilians have died in the unrest, including the point-blank shooting of a 22-year-old protester by a soldier.
Two deaths Wednesday are also being investigated.
The government intimidates and restricts the media in Venezuela, taking CNN en Espaol off the air. It tightly controls visas for foreign journalists including CNN, arresting those who report from inside the country without proper permits.