Venezuela authorizes use of deadly force at demos

Sofia Miselem
Riot police take cover as a Molotov cocktail is thrown at them during an anti-government protest in Caracas on February 28, 2014 (AFP Photo/Juan Berreto)

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuelan soldiers can open fire on demonstrators if they feel their lives are at risk, under a new regulation published one year after anti-government riots left 43 people dead.

The rules announced Thursday outlined procedures for soldiers to maintain public order, going up gradually from asserting an "imposing presence" to the use of deadly force.

The regulations were published just days before the anniversary of the start of anti-government riots that erupted when Venezuelans vented fury over rampant crime, runaway inflation, corruption and shortages of basic goods in the country with the world's largest proven oil reserves.

During those months of unrest, mainly in Caracas and the city of San Cristobal, protests often ended with hooded demonstrators throwing Molotov cocktails at police who answered with tear gas, water cannons and -- in some cases -- rubber bullets.

Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said in a statement on Friday that the rule was a direct response to "last year's violence," which took weeks to quell.

He brushed aside criticism that "aims to twist and take out of context this magnificent document which fully respects human rights and human life -- including the life of the protesters," he said.

The new rules, nevertheless, were viewed negatively by many rights activists.

"One can never leave to the discretion of a government official, and even less to a member of security forces, to determine on the spot if they deem their life is in danger," said constitutional lawyer Tulio Alvarez.

Rocio San Miguel, who works with an NGO called Control Ciudadano (Citizen Control) said it is right to regulate how soldiers behave but that the new rule is "dangerously vague and controversial."

In a report released Thursday, Human Rights Watch said Venezuelan security personnel had routinely use force in an improper manner against unarmed demonstrators and passers-by.