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Venezuela's Chavez to be investigated by the International Criminal Court

By Reuters

THE HAGUE, March 31 (Reuters) - Lawyers have asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for crimes against humanity, saying abuses included politically-motivated killings and torture.

Alfredo Romero, a lawyer representing families of 52 victims of political violence in Venezuela, said on Wednesday he had met prosecutors at the world's first permanent criminal court and asked them to investigate claims of abuses.

"This is a claim against President Chavez and his government for crimes against humanity," Romero told Reuters.

Romero said his group was asking the ICC to investigate more than 20 cases of torture committed since 2002, more than 40 cases of assassination, more than 50 cases of physical violence and four cases of sexual abuse.

"All of these cases were for political reasons," he said.

The court would not confirm if it had received the formal complaint.

Human rights groups have accused Chavez's government of using excessive force to control recent anti-government demonstrations called to demand Chavez submit to a referendum on his rule. They cited cases of shootings, beatings and torture.

The left-wing president has denied there were rights abuses, condemned the pro-referendum protesters as armed subversives and praised the actions of his security forces.

Last week, Venezuela's state ombudsman said security forces had tortured protesters detained during recent demonstrations, but did not shoot and kill demonstrators.

The ombudsman urged the government to investigate, but also accused opposition leaders of instigating violence and said troops and police were fired on.

Opponents of former paratrooper Chavez, elected in 1998, accuse him of becoming increasingly dictatorial and repressive. He calls his enemies U.S.-backed "oligarchs" trying to end his fight against poverty in the world's No. 5 oil exporter.

The ICC -- set up in July 2002 to try genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes -- can only act if national courts cannot or will not, and has jurisdiction where crimes were committed by nationals of a state party to the court or on such a state's territory.

Venezuela is one of more than 90 countries to have ratified the court treaty. Dozens of countries, notably the United States, have spurned the court.

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