June 6, 2017 / 11:06 AM / 6 months ago

Venezuela jailed 14 army officers for dissent at start of protests: documents

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s security forces arrested at least 14 army officers on suspicion of “rebellion” and “treason” in the first week of protests against President Nicolas Maduro’s government in early April, according to military documents seen by Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: Riot security forces take position while clashing with demonstrators rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 31, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Veron/File Photo

The soldiers, who include colonels and captains, are being held in Ramo Verde prison in the hills outside Caracas, according to lists being circulated within the military.

The documents said their cases were being “processed”, and it was not clear if they had been formally charged.

The lists emerged after allegations by Venezuelan opposition leaders that a purge is underway within the military to quash dissent over the handling of massive demonstrations against the socialist government since early April.

The documents seen by Reuters only went up to April 8, after which the opposition and rights activists say scores more soldiers have been rounded up.

The military’s National Guard unit has been at the forefront of policing the protests, using tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets against masked youths who hurl stones, Molotov cocktails and excrement against security lines.

At least 65 people have died, with victims including government and opposition supporters, bystanders and members of the security forces. Hundreds more have been injured.

In public, top military officers have backed Maduro’s accusation that an “armed insurrection” is being mounted by violent conspirators seeking a coup with U.S. backing.

But opposition leaders say there is increasing disquiet within the military over the use of force against protesters who are demanding general elections, foreign humanitarian aid and freedom for jailed activists.

CAPRILES SAYS 100 HELD

One prominent opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, said he had been told by contacts within the armed forces that more than 100 soldiers had been held, most at Ramo Verde jail or military intelligence headquarters in Caracas’ Boleita district.

Most were from the army, though some were from other branches including the National Guard, he told Reuters, without giving any documentary evidence.

“There is great discontent in the army over the National Guard’s latest actions ... the savage repression,” he said, adding there was also dissent over collaboration with armed pro-government gangs and Maduro’s proposed new congress.

A few soldiers have gone public with their discontent.

Three lieutenants fled to Colombia and requested asylum last month, prompting the Venezuelan government to demand their extradition to face charges of coup plotting.

Opposition media last week published a video purporting to be a Venezuelan naval sergeant expressing his dissent and urging colleagues to disobey “abusive” and “corrupt” superiors.

“I reject Mr. Nicolas Maduro Moros as an illegitimate president and refuse to recognize his regime and dictatorial government,” Giomar Flores said in a seven-minute video, wearing a white naval uniform and black beret next to a Venezuelan flag.

Reuters could not confirm his case or whereabouts.

Neither the Information Ministry nor the Armed Forces responded to requests for information.

Late leader Hugo Chavez turned the military into a bastion of “Chavismo” after a short-lived coup against him in 2002.

Though Maduro, 54, does not hail from the army as Chavez did, he has kept ties strong, placing current or former soldiers in a third of ministerial posts, and giving them control over key sectors like food distribution.

Opposition leaders have been openly calling for the armed forces to disobey Maduro and side with their demands, but the top brass have repeatedly pledged loyalty.

Reporting by Girish Gupta and Andrew Cawthorne; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Andrew Hay

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