Venezuela leader snubs 'reckless accusations' at UN

Ben Simon
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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures as he addresses the UN human rights council in Geneva on November 12, 2015

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures as he addresses the UN human rights council in Geneva on November 12, 2015 (AFP Photo/Fabrice Coffrini)

Geneva (AFP) - Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday lashed out at those making "reckless accusations" against his country in an address at the UN Human Rights Council, a speech the US called "an affront" to the body.

Maduro's comments came a day after a group of Venezuelan opposition figures asked the International Criminal Court to probe him and others over crimes against humanity, but the president made no mention of any specific allegations in his remarks.

His appearance at the council -- an irregular event requested by Caracas despite the chamber being out of session -- was fiercely criticised by rights groups who claimed he was trying to clean up his battered image less than a month before legislative elections.

With falling oil prices, Venezuela's crude-rich economy is in tatters and Maduro's plummeting popularity could lead to an opposition win in the December 6 polls.

But the president fiercely defended his record, saying that "in the midst of a difficult 2015, a complicated 2015, Venezuela is victorious."

He railed against those making "reckless accusations taken from the global imperial media agenda" and claimed that Venezuela faced "constant harassment".

- 'Blatantly political' -

The United States branded Maduro's address a "transparent attempt to use the UN Human Rights Council to shift attention away from his government's own actions to restrict fundamental freedoms."

"We thus regret that a head of state would use this council for blatant domestic political purposes," Paul Patin, spokesman for the UN mission in Geneva, said in a statement delivered after Maduro's speech.

A coalition of 50 civil society groups had earlier urged member states to boycott the speech, lamenting that no other parties were allowed to address the council after Maduro spoke.

A council spokesman told AFP that there was no indication any nation had decided to boycott.

Before Maduro took the podium in front of a full chamber, UN rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein raised particular concern over the country's judiciary, highlighting the case of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

Lopez, leader of the Popular Will Party, was sentenced in September to 14 years in jail following what many observers have called a show trial.

Zeid recalled "concerns about the independence of the judiciary in Venezuela, the impartiality of judges and prosecutors and the pressures they face in handling politically sensitive cases."

The Lopez case, he added, was a "stark illustration of these problems."

The exiled coordinator of Popular Will, Carlos Vecchio, petitioned The Hague-based ICC, saying the move was necessary because Venezuela's judicial system had become a "government tool."

Vecchio's petition lists eight officials including Maduro as potential defendants involved with more than 30 alleged murders, 3,700 detentions that the opposition considers illegal and nearly 400 suspected cases of torture.

- Elections looming -

Not surprisingly, Maduro also made no reference to the arrest of two of his wife's nephews who are due to appear in US court on Thursday on charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine.

The case is likely to further strain already tense US-Venezuelan relations at a time of heightened scrutiny with the polls three weeks away.

Patin, of the US mission, expressed hope that Caracas would allow credible polls but said events in the run-up to the vote did not inspire confidence.

He noted court decisions barring opposition candidates from running as well as crackdowns on free speech and assembly.

More than 150 US and Latin American lawmakers sent a letter to Maduro on Wednesday, urging him to let international observers monitor the December polls.