NEW YORK (AP) — The leadership of a broad coalition of Western Hemisphere nations on Wednesday accused the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor of failing to take swift action on allegations that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government committed crimes against humanity.
The General Secretariat of the Organization of American States said in a report that ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s failure to open a formal investigation into Venezuela is “stunning” and “inexplicable.”
The leadership of the 35-member body said the slow pace of the ICC's review of Venezuela's situation has emboldened Maduro's government to commit more crimes believing that it can act with total impunity.
“We cannot play with the lives of the people who are victims of a humanitarian crisis to the dimension of Venezuela,” OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, an outspoken critic of Maduro, told reporters. “We cannot play with the lives of the Venezuelan migrants who want to return to the country.”
In a written response, Bensouda's office said it has made important progress on the Venezuela case and expects to publish its next yearly update this month.
“Impartiality and independence together form the cornerstone of the Prosecutor’s mandate and underlie her every action and decision,” the statement said.
It said the office doesn't bend to outside pressure attempting to “interfere with prosecutorial independence or the normal course of justice.”
The criticism of Bensouda adds to pressure already applied by U.S. officials who have been angered at her investigations of war crimes allegations against U.S. citizens in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Sept. 2 that the United States was imposing sanctions on Bensouda and the tribunal's chief of jurisdiction, including a freeze on assets held in the U.S. or subject to U.S. law.
That led to protests by more than 70 nations including key U.S. allies and several member of the OAS. They issued a statement that “any attempt to undermine the independence of the court should not be tolerated.”
The OAS accused the court of inaction after being presented with an OAS report in 2018 that alleged murders, torture, rapes, persecution and enforced disappearances in Venezuela.
The new OAS report was written Jared Genser, an OAS's special adviser.
Genser, a human rights lawyer and professor at Georgetown University, told reporters that this report is not an attack against the ICC but rather a call for transparency, accountability and urgency.
“Our report brings to life the extraordinary suffering of the people of Venezuela, being inflicted on them by Nicolás Maduro and his regime," Genser said.
Maduro’s government didn’t immediately respond to the report, but often dismisses such claims a interference of Venezuela’s sovereignty by nations beholden to Washington.
ICC prosecutors said in a news release at the beginning of November that Bensouda had met with Venezuela's attorney general, Tarek William Saab, and conveyed to him that prosecutors had a “reasonable basis” to believe that crimes within the court's jurisdiction have occurred in Venezuela. Prosecutors sought information on relevant domestic proceedings and Saab offered his cooperation, the release said.
The attorney general released a statement Monday saying that Venezuela had submitted an “extensive” report to the ICC, answering all its questions.
ICC prosecutors have also said they are undertaking preliminary examinations to determine "whether to open an investigation.” Additional details will be contained in an end of the year report, they said.
The OAS statement released Wednesday said Bensouda has failed to comply with principles of “impartiality and objectivity.”
It said the prosecutor's preliminary examinations underreported “the scale and severity of some of the alleged crimes, raising serious questions” about the court's "intention to prosecute fully the crimes against humanity in Venezuela falling within the ICC’s jurisdiction.”
Among the alleged crimes against humanity from 2014 to 2020, the report said, are allegations that more than 18,000 murders were committed by Venezuelan security forces and paramilitary groups, including extrajudicial killings and the killing of protesters. It also mentions 653 documented cases of torture.
But, the report contends, ICC prosecutors omitted in preliminary examinations “thousands of reported killings from credible sources” and also failed "to acknowledge that enforced disappearances are not isolated cases, but rather part of a larger pattern.”
In September, independent experts for the United Nations' Human Rights Council accused Maduro's government of serious crimes, including grisly cases of torture and killings allegedly carried out by security forces who used techniques such as electric shocks, genital mutilation and asphyxiation.
Maduro's government formalized Venezuela's exit from the OAS in 2019.
Some OAS members, like Mexico, don't recognize Gustavo Tarré, a Venezuelan opposition envoy, as his nation’s representative to the regional body. The U.S. and most of the 35 member states recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela.
Smith reported from Caracas, Venezuela.
Associated Press writer Michael Corder contributed to this report from The Hague.