The Venezuelan dictatorship’s extra-judicial killing of rebel police inspector Oscar Perez on Jan. 15 may have bigger repercussions than many suspect: It will be a powerful piece of evidence to help open an investigation into President Nicolas Maduro at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
That’s no small matter, because there is nothing Maduro and his top aides fear more than the ICC.
Unlike the human rights agencies of the United Nations and other international organizations, the Hague-based ICC prosecutes individuals – including presidents and ministers – rather than states. If the ICC opens an investigation into Venezuela’s human rights abuses and finds Maduro guilty, it could issue an international warrant for his arrest.
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Judging from what I’m hearing from well-placed legal experts, Organization of American States chief Luis Almagro and other organizations are getting closer to presenting a formal case against Venezuela at the ICC. The OAS could do it within the next three weeks.
More important, the 12 Latin American countries known as the Group of Lima, which already have condemned Maduro’s regime, could officially request that the ICC open an investigation into Venezuela’s crimes against humanity when its foreign ministers meet in Chile on Jan. 23 to discuss Venezuela’s crisis.
Under a little-known ICC rule, the court’s prosecutor has to open a preliminary investigation into a country when that country’s courts are unwilling or unable to prosecute criminals, and another country requests it. This means that if the Lima Group or one of its members asks for a probe into the Maduro regime, the court’s prosecutor would have to open a preliminary investigation.
“If the idea is to stop Venezuela’s abuses, the next step should be for any Latin American country to request a preliminary investigation by the ICC prosecutor,” says Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas’ department of Human Rights Watch. “There is abundant evidence of massive and systematic abuses.”
Much like the military dictators of Argentina and Chile in the 1970s, Maduro claims that Perez died in a clash with security forces after he allegedly tried to open fire against them. But, unlike in the 1970s, there were iPhones this time that recorded everything on video.
The videos, some of which were recorded by Perez himself and posted on his Instagram account during the siege of his hideout, show Perez negotiating with a government envoy, and saying he has offered to surrender. Later, another video shows Perez with his face bleeding, while explosions and shots are heard in the backdrop.
“They are shooting at us with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades),” Perez tells the camera. “We said we’ve turned ourselves in, but they don’t want to let us turn ourselves in. They want to kill us!”
Another video shot from outside and shown on CNN en Espanol shows government forces shooting at Perez’s hideout with an RPG, causing a huge explosion. It looked like Kosovo, or any other country at war.
Later in the day, the Maduro regime said that Perez and four other “terrorists” were killed after they had opened fire on the security forces that were surrounding them.
Perez was being sought by the Maduro regime since he threw grenades at government buildings from a helicopter he stole in June, and read a proclamation demanding Venezuela’s return to democracy. Perez’s helicopter stunt had left no one dead nor injured.
By comparison, when late President Hugo Chavez led a coup attempt in 1992, his attack left at least 32 dead and hundreds wounded. Chavez was pardoned and set free after spending two years in prison.
To open a formal investigation into the Maduro regime, the ICC has to find evidence of crimes against humanity that are widespread and systematic. Among the evidence cited by legal experts are Maduro’s decrees ordering the brutal repression of street protests that left more than 100 dead last year, more than 5,400 arbitrary arrests over the past 12 months, and at least 114 political prisoners such as opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
Now, the videos of Perez’s extra-judicial execution after he had offered to surrender should put even greater pressure on the ICC prosecutor to start a probe. There is no excuse for not doing it.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.