GENEVA – United Nations human rights experts demanded answers Thursday from Venezuela's government about the use of violence and imprisonment in a crackdown on widespread demonstrations.
Six experts with the U.N.'s top human rights body wrote to the administration of President Nicolas Maduro about allegations of protesters being beaten and in some cases severely tortured by security forces, and taken to military facilities, cut off from communication and denied legal help, U.N. officials said.
"The recent violence amid protests in Venezuela need to be urgently and thoroughly investigated, and perpetrators must be held accountable," the experts said in a joint statement.
The six experts -- special rapporteurs Frank La Rue, Maina Kiai, Mads Andenas, Juan MΘndez, Christof Heyns and Margaret Sekaggya -- report to the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council, based in Geneva.
The Venezuelan economy's downward spiral helped trigger a wave of protests against Maduro in mid-February that has claimed more than a dozen lives.
Venezuela's U.N. Mission in Geneva dismissed the experts' request for answers as an unfortunate echo of what they described as an international disinformation campaign to undermine their government.
Also Thursday, Julieta Lopez, a Swiss-based aunt of Venezuela's top opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, told reporters at the U.N. in Geneva that he is being held in isolation at a military prison more than an hour from the capital Caracas, where he sleeps on the floor of a tiny cell.
She said her nephew faces a variety of false criminal charges but hopes his imprisonment will help "awaken Venezuela." Maduro has accused Lopez of being behind the violence and leading a "fascist" plot against the government.
"Leopoldo is in prison to defend the democratic rights of our country," she told reporters in Spanish. "And if it is democratic, then we should be able to protest peacefully."
On Monday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua met with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and defended the government's actions before the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Jaua said 18 people had died in the student-led protests and 73 people remained in custody, "and only in three cases is it believed that this is due to illegal acts by police and which need to be brought to trial."
Ban told reporters that he urged Venezuelan authorities to respond to the protests with dialogue, not violence.