The International Criminal Court will investigate whether crimes against humanity were committed during Venezuela's clampdown on anti-government protests in 2017, President Nicolás Maduro and ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said Wednesday.
More than 100 people died as the security forces cracked down on the demonstrations sparked by the arrests of several opposition leaders and the supreme court's decision to dissolve the opposition-dominated National Assembly.
After a preliminary evaluation, Khan "has decided to move on to the next phase to seek the truth," said Maduro. "As a state, we respect his decision, although we do not share it."
"I ask everyone, as we enter this new phase, to give my office space to do its work," added Khan.
The move was hailed by opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who has claimed since 2019 to be Venezuela's interim president, backed by around 60 countries.
Guaido said on Twitter that this move would enable the victims and their families to "claim the right to obtain justice that has been denied in Venezuela."
When the ICC opened the preliminary investigation in 2018, Khan's predecessor Fatou Bensouda said there was a "reasonable basis" to believe the government had committed crimes against humanity.
Maduro complained that the Venezuelan state was not given access to the documents and information evaluated during that phase.
"We were blind in that stage," said the president.
During Khan's three-day visit, which began on Sunday, small groups of family members of the victims of the alleged rights abuses held street protests demanding an audience with Khan.
On Wednesday there was also a small protest outside the intelligence services headquarters in Caracas, where opposition figures are being held.
"I'm fully aware of the flaws that exist in Venezuela, the political division. We [the ICC] are not political, we are guided by the principles of legality and the rule of law," said Khan.
Khan and Maduro signed an agreement to collaborate on the next step of the investigation.
The ICC prosecutor praised the "constructive dialogue" he had following meetings with Maduro, Vice-President Delcy Rodríguez, Attorney General Tarek William Saab and representatives of the Supreme Court.
Since 2017, some 150 members of the police and military have been charged or sentenced for human rights violations, according to the public ministry.
The opposition claims those actions were taken merely to try to avoid an ICC investigation.
Rafael Uzcategui, a leader of the Provea human rights NGO, said the opening of an investigation showed that "there were crimes against humanity and ... they have so far not been properly investigated."
The ICC is also at the preliminary stage of another case involving Venezuela, brought by the government accusing the United States of crimes against humanity over its sanctions against the South American country's leaders.