July 14, 2017 / 9:36 AM / 9 days ago

U.N. urges Venezuela to allow dissent as asylum requests soar

A demonstrator throws back a tear gas canister during clashes at a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela July 10, 2017.Andres Martinez Casares

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations called on Venezuela's government to let people take part in an unofficial referendum on the constitution on Sunday and make sure security forces do not use excessive force against protestors.

Opposition groups have called the plebiscite after months of protests, saying Venezuelans should have their say on President Nicolas Maduro's plan to rewrite the constitution.

"We urge authorities to respect the wishes of those who want to participate in this consultation and to guarantee people’s rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly," U.N. human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell told a Geneva news briefing on Friday.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in in Venezuela in recent months calling for an end to Maduro's presidency, amid food shortages, a collapsing currency and soaring inflation.

About 100 people have died and more than 1,500 have been injured in anti-government unrest that started in April.

The U.N. rights office has received accounts that "some members of the Venezuelan security forces have used repressive tactics, intimidating and instilling fear, to try to deter people from demonstrating," Throssell said.

A demonstrator throws a molotov cocktail during clashes with security forces at a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela July 10, 2017.Andres Martinez Casares

Thousands of demonstrators are reported to have been "arbitrarily detained" and more than 450 civilians are believed to have been brought before military tribunals, she said.

Maduro is seeking to create a new super body called a Constituent Assembly, which would have powers to rewrite the constitution and dismiss the current opposition-controlled legislature, via a July 30 vote.

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His opponents have accused the Socialist leader of economic incompetence, while Maduro says pro-opposition businessmen and Washington are waging an "economic war" against him.

Applications for asylum lodged by Venezuelan nationals have "soared", with 52,000 already this year against 27,000 all of 2016, the U.N. refugee agency said. This represented "only a fraction" of those in need of safe harbour from violence and food shortages.

Venezuelans have sought asylum mainly in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Uruguay, and Mexico, UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said.

"UNHCR reiterates its call to states to protect the rights of Venezuelans, particularly the right to seek asylum and to have access to fair and effective asylum procedures," he said. "Venezuelans should not be send back against their will."

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Heavens

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