Opponents of Venezuela's government took to the streets Friday after a United Nations report found that thousands of extrajudicial killings had taken place since the beginning of 2018.
Anti-government protesters wore white shirts and hats with the country’s flag, holding sings and chanting "liberty" as they walked through the Venezuelan capital Caracas, demanding respect a day after a report by the United Nations’ human rights chief said the government of President Nicolas Maduro had committed human rights violations, and days after a navy captain died in military custody.
But across Caracas, supporters of Maduro also rallied to mark the country's independence day, as the country's military massed in a strong show of support for the embattled regime.
Maduro oversaw a strong show of support from the military, addressing supporters wearing red shirts and waving flags of his ruling party at a parade marking the national holiday, according to the Associated Press. He applauded as soldiers and tanks passed him and military planes roared in the sky above a military base in Caracas, according to the AP.
"We look to the heavens, asking for peace," Maduro said, according to the AP. "All the while our military exercises play out. We plead to God with our missiles pointed."
Across the city, Patricia Moya, a 42-year-old public school teacher, told ABC News she drove three hours to support opposition leader Juan Guaido, who in January claimed to be the country’s interim president.
“I’m here to show the world that we have a crisis and they are stepping over our human rights,” she said. “I feel like I have no rights when at night I don’t know what to feed my children for dinner,” she said. “My salary should be enough.”
It was the first opposition protest to be held in Caracas in a month. The opposition was emboldened this week by a report by the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, that said almost 7,000 extrajudicial killings have taken place in Venezuela since last year. The report also said that the government has inadequately addressed food and medicine scarcity.
Venezuela released 22 prisoners on Thursday, at Bachelet’s request, according to a spokeswoman for the high commissioner, Reuters reported.
Venezuela’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the report presented “used selective and partialized information,” and Maduro’s government issued a lengthy list of “errors” it said the report had made.
Maduro, meanwhile, has continued to back dialogue with the opposition, although Guaido has dismissed the idea.
Guaido, who has been recognized by the U.S. and dozens of other countries as Venezuela’s interim leader, had called for protesters to walk to Venezuelan military intelligence headquarters to “demand the end of torture, murder and human rights violations,” but starting early this morning, pro-Maduro security forces blocked a route to their final destination.
Guaido’s call came after a Venezuelan navy captain died in military custody last week. The wife of Cpt. Rafael Acosta and rights groups accused the government of torturing him and refusing to clarify the circumstances of his death.
Venezuela’s chief prosecutor on Monday charged two intelligence officials with homicide in connection with Acosta’s death, but without explaining how he was allegedly killed.
“We are going to go to the place of torture, without fears,” Guaido said.
At the rally, Guaido climbed atop a statue with a megaphone to speak to a cheering crowd, after security forces blocked their route.
Protester Maria Espinoza, wearing an apron and hat with Venezuela’s flag on it, chanted with her group of friends against the government. The 56-year old said she felt immense pain.
“I feel like Venezuelans have their hearts broken because of the atrocities that are happening,” Espinoza, a manager at a factory that produces yogurt, told ABC News. “But I still have faith.”
While protesters marched in the streets, legislatures loyal to both the Maduro regime and the opposition also held dueling sessions. The president of the pro-Maduro National Constituent Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, had organized the pro-Maduro rally to celebrate 208 years of independence.
Speaking outside the opposition-aligned National Assembly earlier this morning, Guaido said Maduro’s “regime is afraid of mobilizations,” adding that “Venezuelans know that there is no door to block freedom.”
Also Friday, Russia, which has backed Maduro, said it would help strengthen the Venezuela’s military. “We will continue our multifaceted efforts on developing partner relations with brotherly Venezuela,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, according to Russian state news agency TASS. “We will continue to implement projects in various areas, to hold events within the existing agreements that would strengthen the military potential of this country’s armed forces.”