By Johnny Carvajal and Vivian Sequera
CARACAS (Reuters) - Security forces are punishing some Venezuelans who violate anti-coronavirus measures with physical exercise, sitting under the sun and even beating, witnesses and rights groups say.
Roberto Vargas was heading to buy flour with his children in Caracas on Thursday when he lowered his face mask to wipe sweat from his face, he said. A National Guard officer noticed and ordered him to spend 50 minutes sat on the roadside with several dozen others, the builder recounted.
"This is madness," he told Reuters in the Caracas slum of Petare, just after completing his penalty.
Local rights groups say authorities are handing out such punishments around the country for infractions ranging from not queuing correctly for groceries to disobeying curfews.
One group, Provea, on July 31 posted a video on Twitter apparently showing a soldier in western Tachira state ordering three young men to do pushups while saying "I should not be in the street."
In some cases, security forces have used violence as a form of discipline, Provea says. On July 22, it posted another video on Twitter, which had been circulating on social media, saying it showed three men being hit on their legs with a baseball bat for breaking coronavirus measures.
Venezuela's Information Ministry did not respond to a request to comment about the videos, which Reuters was unable to independently verify.
'CRUEL AND INHUMAN'
But chief prosecutor Tarek Saab reacted to the baseball bat video by saying authorities would investigate the "cruel and inhuman treatment" and a week later said the person responsible had been identified and charged with assault.
Saab named the person but did not say where he worked.
The punishments, opposition lawmakers and rights groups say, are another example of how President Nicolas Maduro has militarized his government's response to the pandemic, deploying forces widely accused of human rights violations including torture, extrajudicial killings and extortion.
Maduro has publicly thanked the military for "doing battle" with COVID-19. He has previously said his security forces have been subject to an international defamation campaign.
Since Maduro announced a lockdown in March, security forces have set up checkpoints across the country to limit people's movement and enforce mask use. Police units also patrol through cities to ensure residents comply with curfews.
"This is only going to worsen the contagion rate," Jose Manuel Olivares, a health adviser to opposition leader Juan Guaido, told Reuters, saying many were not reporting possible symptoms for fear of drawing heavyhanded attention.
Maduro's government is trying to stop an accelerating number of cases from overloading the dilapidated health system. So far authorities have confirmed 23,280 cases and 202 deaths, though medical bodies warn that testing is insufficient and numbers may be far higher as the COVID-19 disease rages across Latin America.
(Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)