Venezuela uses pretrial detention as a punishment, rights group says

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FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's Maduro at a news conference

CARACAS (Reuters) - Nearly three-quarters of all individuals detained in Venezuela for what rights group Penal Forum considers political reasons are awaiting trial, the group said on Monday, arguing it is a sign that authorities use pretrial detention as a punishment.

Venezuelan law states that pretrial detention cannot last more than two years, Penal Forum's directors Alfredo Romero and Gonzalo Himiob told reporters, noting that 49 of the 323 individuals they consider political prisoners have been detained for longer than that amount of time.

"They are arbitrarily keeping them longer," Romero said, adding that 74% of those 323 detainees "have not even had their trial begin, which is to say, they have not even had one hearing."

Rights groups, Venezuela's opposition, and Western democracies including the United States have long argued that President Nicolas Maduro's government uses the justice system to quash political dissent.

Maduro frequently accuses opponents of "terrorism" or seeking to oust him in coups. The government denies that Venezuela holds political prisoners.

Neither Venezuela's information ministry nor the country's Chief Prosecutor's office immediately responded to requests for comment on Monday.

Romero said that 10 of the prisoners monitored by Penal Forum have spent four years behind bars, and four have been awaiting trial for six years. He said 20% of the detainees have had their trials begin, while 6% have pled guilty.

"These people are being used to set an example in criminal procedures that go on forever, making them a tool of political persecution," Himiob said.

The group of 323 prisoners includes 23 women, while the rest are men. At least 123 of the detainees are members of the military.

Romero added that at least 9,000 people who have been detained since 2014 on political charges are still restricted by probationary measures, including regular court appearances or bans on leaving the country.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Matthew Lewis)