Victims of 2002 Venezuelan Coup Denounce Double Standards in Justice after Iván Simonovis’ Release

Just blocks away from the Presidential Palace, stands Llaguno bridge, the site of a massacre during the April 2002 coup briefly removing Hugo Chavez from Venezuelan office. Today, the bridge was filled with family members of the victims who were demanding answers and justice following the release of former Police chief Iván Simonovis.

By Cory Fischer-Hoffman- venezuelanalysis.com

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Yesenia Fuentes, president of the Association of Victims of April 11, 2002 (Asovic) speaking at a Press Conference on Llaguno bridge
(Photo: Cory Fischer-Hoffman, Venezuelanalysis.com)
Yesenia Fuentes, president of the Association of Victims of April 11, 2002 (Asovic) speaking at a Press Conference on Llaguno bridge (Photo: Cory Fischer-Hoffman, Venezuelanalysis.com)

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The monument to the fallen on Llaguno bridge (Photo: Cory Fischer-Hoffman, Venezuelanalysis.com)
The monument to the fallen on Llaguno bridge (Photo: Cory Fischer-Hoffman, Venezuelanalysis.com)

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The view onto Baralt Avenue from Llagno bridge (Photo: Cory Fischer-Hoffman, Venezuelanalysis.com)
The view onto Baralt Avenue from Llagno bridge (Photo: Cory Fischer-Hoffman, Venezuelanalysis.com)
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In 2009, Simonovis was sentenced to 30 years in prison after being found guilty of playing a lead role in the massacre at Llaguno bridge. He was recently released from prison and placed on house arrest, after a court granted his conditional freedom due to alleged health problems this past friday. Victims of the massacre called a press conference on the bridge, insisting his release illustrates a grave double standard in the criminal justice system.

A statue of bodies crouching down while their hands reach towards the sky stands as a memorial to those who lost their lives or were victims of the violence that took place during the April 2002 coup in Venezuela.

Today, Yesenia Fuentes, president of the Association of Victims of April 11, 2002 (Asovic) stood in front of the towering monument on Llaguno bridge and told the crowd gathered before her, “We are here in repudiation of the decision made in favor of Ivan Simonovis' early on friday….[he] was imprisoned for the crime of violating the human rights of those who were supporting President Chavez….and we the victims completely refuse to accept the validity of this ruling.”

April 11th, 2002

In a well-documented plot orchestrated by the Metropolitan Police, oppositions leaders, members of the business elite and the private media, sharp shooters positioned on buildings overlooking the bridge fired upon pro-Chavez supporters who had gathered to counteract a large opposition march on the fateful April day. 17 people were killed and hundreds injured while in the Presidential Palace, a coup d’etat was already underway. The incident was then represented by the private media as evidence that supporters of President Hugo Chavez had become violent. Footage portraying Chavez supporters firing at the snipers in self-defense was manipulated to look like Chavez supporters had begun indiscriminately firing on the opposition. This incident was used as fodder for the private media to justify the following events, during which President Chavez was said to have resigned, though this was an obvious lie. A team of Venezuelan elite and senior military officials installed the then director of Fedecamaras chamber of commerce Pedro Carmona as interim president, who proceeded to dissolve the constitution and national assembly in one fell swoop.

Millions of working class Venezuelans who had benefited from the social programs and redistributive aims of the Bolivarian Revolution filled the streets to defend the 1999 Constitution and their President. Their show of force convinced National Guards-members loyal to President Chavez to re-take the palace and return Chavez to power. The April 2002 coup remains one of the most important moments in Venezuela's recent history and it highlights the height of polarization in Venezuela between government supporters and the opposition.

A former chief of police and former Security Secretary of the Metropolitan Mayorship of Caracas, Simonovis was one of 11 people tried for his involvement in the incidents that took place at Llaguno bridge. On April 3, 2009 Simonovis, along with Police Commissioners Henry Vivas and Lázaro Forero were sentenced to 30 years in prison with time served. Seven other officers were found guilty and given lesser sentences and police officer Rafael Neazoa López was released after he was absolved of his involvement.

According to El Universal, in 2008 Simonovis was diagnosed with moderate osteoporosis, herniated disks, and carpal tunnel syndrome, and was given advanced medical treatment. During this time, his wife and other supporters championed his case and worked for his release, largely on medical grounds. In November of 2013, Simonovis released his autobiography entitled The Red Prisoner, which further heightened his profile. Following a surgical procedure in May of 2014, Simonovis went on a hunger strike demanding his release from the Ramo Verdo Military prison in Los Teques, Venezuela. On Saturday, after the court decision was announced, Bony Simonovis, Iván's wife tweeted a picture of Mr. Simonovis in their home with her and her daughter.

Demanding Answers

Today spokespeople representing the victims of April 11, 2002, political collectives and grassroots leaders demanded answers in the face of Simonovis's release from prison.

“High ranking officials in the metropolitan police that gave orders for the massacre are still free in the street” said Chalo Asuaje, of the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar “We want a serious government that is representative and participatory, and we want them and the judge to tell the people what is happening. The organized people need to know about this.”

Asuaje's demand for an explanation was consistent with many of those who spoke at the conference. “We don't know if the executive branch knew about this or participated in the decision to release Simonovis, that is why we are demanding they give us an explanation if they have one, and if they don't we want an explanation from the Supreme Court,” said Edgar Marques, who witnessed the violence on April 11, 2002.

Fuentes also demanded to see medical records of Mr. Simonovis, noting that his alleged illness has been reported by the media but that no proof had been made available and nor had the association of victims been consulted about the decision to release him.

The executive branch of the government in Venezuela has repeatedly reaffirmed the independence of the judiciary in decisions such as these.

“We have to respect an autonomous power such as the judges and courts. And even though we respect their power, we as citizens, have full rights to show our indignation, and we reject that they keep taking measures like this in Venezuela. Those who were responsible for the coup in 2002 need to be captured. How is it that there was coup d'etat without anyone who is held responsible?” Ricardo Monsalve asked.

Double-Standards in Criminal Punishment

While the mainstream media in Venezuela and abroad continue to project Venezuela as an authoritarian regime that is arbitrarily imprisoning members of the political opposition, pro-government supporters are accusing the government of the very opposite. Referring to Simonovis' release, Ricardo Monsalve asked “What is the message that this is sending to the Venezuelan people?” He quickly answered his own question, “Don't worry, coup-plotters, fascists, you can keep killing chavistas...there won't be a sentence for you, you won't have to do time, you want have to pay for it.”

In light of the imprisonment of opposition leader Leopaldo Lopez, along with four student leaders implicated in the violence that took over 40 peoples' lives this past year, the image presented outside of Venezuela is one in which the political opposition is facing harsh government repression. From on the ground in Venezuela, things look very different.

According to Roberto Carpio of the Hatillo combate collective, the release of Simonovis demonstrates that “we still have a classist justice system.”

Many of the spokespeople compared Simonovis's situation to the average person incarcerated in prisons in Venezuela, and quickly concluded that he was receiving special privileges.

“We have to think about young kids who get arrested for having a small amount of marijuana, or for stealing bread and they end up in prison...in these situations there is no justice.” Asuaje told venezuelanalysis.com after the official press conference had concluded. “But this guy who is a murderer, a criminal, and who has a sentence for 30 years, they let him go.”

Asuaje's comments were quickly affirmed by Marques who noted that there are, unfortunately, many people in prison who deserve to be released “but they come from the barrios.”

Prisons in Venezuela, as in most countries, are almost exclusively filled with poor people. Of the roughly 55,000 people currently doing time in Venezuela, over half of them have yet to be tried or sentenced for a crime.

Family members of incarcerated Venezuelans repeatedly demand speedier trials and respect for human rights of their loved ones; which includes access to visits from family members, nutritious food, sanitary conditions, medical attention and freedom from violence. Despite efforts to reform the prisons in Venezuela by the Ministry of Penitentiary Services, there is still a long way to go in guaranteeing these fundamental human rights.

According to a recent report released by the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, many people suffer from health problems in the country’s prisons. The three most common health issues are dermatological, gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases which are a direct result of the unsanitary conditions in many prisons. In the first half of 2014, seven people being held in Venezuelan prisons died of HIV-AIDS, and there are also many cases of hepatitis and tuberculosis among people in prison.

Of the many people battling illnesses within Venezuela’s prisons, it is virtually unheard of that they be released on account of their health. In fact, just having access to medical attention is a constant struggle for those incarcerated in Venezuelan prisons.

The treatment of Simonovis, when juxtaposed with the thousands of poor Venezuelans who have yet to be tried and whom cannot access medical attention at all, reveals a clear double-standard in the criminal punishment system.

Now that Simonovis's has been granted house arrest, Fuentes expressed concerns that he would escape and flee the country. No Venezuelan has forgotten how Pedro Carmona himself eluded Venezuelan house arrest through the Colombian embassy to live a peaceful life as a prestigious university professor in Colombia.

Demanding Justice

None of the coup’s victims or their families have received any form of victims’ compensation, though they believe the request is well within their rights. “Because they can never give back to us those who have been killed” said Marques, “we won't compromise on our demands for justice.”

“He [Simonovis] has to serve his sentence. With all of his human rights protected, if he is sick, he should get medical attention but, in prison.” Monsalve affirmed. As he pointed to the bridge below his feet, he continued, “We are asking for justice. Nothing more, nothing less; that the constitution be respected. Here on the Llaguno bridge, that's what we were doing; we are defending the constitution.”

After the press conference concluded and the crowds dispersed, the memorial statue stood alone, with hands reaching towards the sky, as if justice was still out of reach.