The International Criminal Court is to investigate Venezuela's socialist government for alleged crimes against humanity over accusations of torture, rape and extrajudicial killings by the country's security forces.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said he had decided during a visit to Caracas to "open an investigation to establish the truth" about crimes allegedly committed under President Nicolás Maduro's rule.
The move deals a blow to Mr Maduro’s hopes of winning relief from crippling international economic sanctions.
Mr Maduro said he would respect the decision but did not agree with it. "Venezuela guarantees justice with institutions which are ready to improve, perfect themselves and advance," he said on Twitter. The memorandum signed with the ICC "marks the start of a new phase of dialogue, co-operation and mutual support", he added.
The investigation is the first the ICC has conducted into a Latin American government for possible crimes against humanity and comes as Mr Maduro is trying to secure greater international recognition for his regime by engaging in talks in Mexico with the Venezuelan opposition.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said the decision “should be a powerful wake-up call not only for those who committed abuses or covered them up but also for military and civilian leaders who knew or should have known what was happening and failed to act”.
A UN fact-finding mission reported last year that Mr Maduro and his top ministers were responsible for probable crimes against humanity, including more than 5,000 extrajudicial killings since 2014 and the systematic use of torture.
“Far from being isolated acts, these crimes were co-ordinated and committed pursuant to state policies, with the knowledge or direct support of commanding officers and senior government officials,” mission chair Marta Valiñas said at the time.
Mr Maduro secured re-election in 2018 in a vote widely condemned as a sham and boycotted by the opposition. The following year, the US, the EU and many Latin American countries tried to force him out by recognising opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate interim president and imposing sanctions.
With support from Cuba, Russia, China and Iran, Maduro managed to circumvent the sanctions and tighten his grip on power. Early this year, the EU dropped its recognition of Mr Guaidó as interim president and pressed instead for negotiations between Mr Maduro and the opposition to try to break the deadlock.
An initial round of talks in Mexico produced few concrete results and Mr Maduro's government has suspended further rounds in protest against the extradition last month to the US of Alex Saab, a Venezuelan government fixer, to face a charge of conspiracy to launder money. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021