Venezuela and Prosecutors Trade Barbs as ICC Considers Petition to Suspend Probe

The session before the Appeals Chamber devolved into a tense back and forth between Venezuela’s lawyers and ICC prosecutors.
A chamber of the International Criminal Court located in The Hague is seen in this file photo. (ICC)

Mexico City, Mexico, November 11, 2023 ( – Venezuela presented its appeal before the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the court’s decision to resume an investigation into alleged human rights abuses committed during violent anti-government protests.

In June, the Pre-Trial Chamber I of the International Criminal Court accepted Prosecutor Karim Khan’s petition to resume a formal investigation into the conduct of Venezuelan officials that could constitute crimes against humanity. 

Lawyers representing Venezuela are requesting the court suspend its probe on the basis of the complementarity principle. The Hague-based tribunal is defined as a court of last resort that should only open legal proceedings in cases in which national legal institutions fail to address alleged violations.

Caracas has consistently maintained that domestic courts are investigating and prosecuting state officials suspected of committing abuses during violent anti-government protests known as “guarimbas” that saw US-backed opposition groups block roads, burn people alive, and shoot upon security forces resulting in the deaths of over 130 people.

This week’s session at The Hague devolved into a tense back and forth between Venezuela’s lawyers and prosecutors. 

Ben Emmerson, one of the Venezuelan government’s lawyers who has worked on high-profile cases involving Julian Assange and Carlos Puidgemont, criticized the court for rejecting documentation provided by Caracas in Spanish. The Prosecutor’s Office argued that documentation should have been provided in French or English, the working languages of the ICC. The court ultimately made its determinations based solely on English-language summaries that had been provided by Venezuela.

The exchange served to show the difficult position Caracas finds itself in concerning the ICC investigation. As a show of good faith, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro met with Khan earlier this year to announce the opening of a technical assistance office, where the president committed to facilitating the court’s work inside the country. However, Caracas fundamentally disagrees with the opening of an investigation by the court.

The ICC investigation stems from a request filed in 2018 before the court by a handful of countries on behalf of Venezuela’s right-wing opposition accusing the Maduro government of committing crimes against humanity.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Yván Gil reminded the court that Venezuela had shared over 30,000 reports detailing its investigations into alleged abuses by state officials. 

“Venezuela has nothing to hide, we ratify the unbreakable commitment to continue exercising jurisdiction over each of the matters,” said Gil on Wednesday.

In its June ruling, the Pre-Trial Chamber I determined that the Venezuelan investigations were directed on lower level perpetrators and was “not investigating the factual allegations underlying the contextual elements of crimes against humanity.”

Emmerson had earlier argued that the prosecution had not provided sufficiently clear information about what crimes had been allegedly committed, nor what cases the court was investigating, which would allow Venezuela to determine where there might be overlap. The prosecution rejected those arguments, with Prosecutor Nivedha Thiru claiming the court did not need to go into such detail at the beginning of an investigation. 

Khan’s prosecution rests on allegations that high-level officials instructed state security forces to act with discriminatory intent as part of a broader pattern of political persecution.

However, Caracas has always argued that the probe is politically driven and forms part of a US-led plot designed to oust the Maduro government from power.

Foreign Minister Gil reiterated the government’s position Wednesday during his intervention before the Appeals Chamber. 

“The institutional framework of the ICC was used to politically attack Venezuela, to accuse the country of crimes against humanity that never actually occurred. It was during the times of Donald Trump and his regime change strategy, where all options were on the table,” said Gil before the court.

The ICC chief prosecutor has come under heavy criticism for his subdued comments concerning the ongoing genocide against Palestinians currently being carried out by Israel. Khan has dedicated more energy toward criticizing the Palestinian resistance instead of holding Israel accountable. Numerous human rights organizations have denounced Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets in the Gaza Strip and have accused Israel of failing to meet its obligations as an occupying power. 

Edited by Ricardo Vaz in Caracas.