The "preliminary examination" by the Netherlands-based tribunal is the first step toward launching an investigation into what ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda called allegations of "excessive force" by state security forces against opponents of President Nicolas Maduro.
Bensouda, in a statement,
said the decision comes after "a careful, independent and impartial review" of alleged crimes by Maduro's government to put down demonstrations and political unrest since April 2017.
In addition, the ICC will examine the arrests of thousands of "actual or perceived members of the opposition," including some "allegedly subjected to serious abuse and ill treatment in detention," according to the statement.
Bensouda noted the court had also received reports that violence by protesters had resulted in death or injury of security forces.
The Venezuelan foreign ministry issued a statement Thursday night defending the country as a "democratic state" and asking why Bensouda didn't contact the government directly.
"The Venezuelan government was surprised by the absence of any official communication from the court's prosecutor and by the way she chose to share this information," the statement said. "Bringing these allegations to our attention through these means alters the very principal of the process."
Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab defended the government on Thursday, calling the information Bensouda was relying on to launch the examination "biased." In a series of tweets, Saab said the state is prepared to defend its actions and that those responsible for human rights abuses have been punished.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that the international court prosecutor was "sending a powerful message that her office is closely tracking the Maduro government's egregious abuses." The rights group has said Venezuela "systematically used brutal treatment, including torture,
against anti-government protesters and political opponents."
In August, the United Nations' human rights office accused Venezuelan
security forces of using excessive force and arbitrarily detaining thousands of people.
More than 120 people have died in protest-related incidents since last spring as critics accused Maduro of illegitimately consolidating power, including stacking the Supreme Court with loyalists and holding an election for a new legislative assembly packed virtually with only his backers.
Last month, the European Union sanctioned seven Venezuelan leaders
, accusing them of undermining democracy. The EU also banned weapons sales to Venezuela in November.
The Trump administration has also sanctioned a number of Venezuelan leaders.
In August, the United States also applied strict financial sanctions to Venezuela.