Caracas, September 11, 2015 (venezuelanalysis.com) – A Venezuelan judge sentenced far right opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez to 13 years and nine months in prison Thursday evening for his role in leading last year’s violent anti-government protests.
Venezuelan judge Susana Barreiros found Lopez guilty of public incitement to violence and association to commit crimes. In particular, Barreiros cited over 700 tweets which she says urged supporters to take the streets to demand the “exit” of democratically elected President Nicolas Maduro.
Beginning on February 12, 2014 and lasting several months, the protests saw opposition supporters set up violent street barricades that led to the deaths of 43 people, over half of whom were security personnel and passersby.
Lopez was arrested on February 14 after clashes saw armed opposition backers attack the Public Prosecutor’s office and other government buildings, leading to several deaths and widespread public property damage.
Born into one of Venezuela's wealthiest families, Lopez is also well known for playing an active role in the US-sponsored 2002 coup which saw then-president Hugo Chavez briefly ousted from office. The arrest of the Harvard-educated lawyer has attracted widespread coverage from international news outlets, which have drawn comparisons between the rightwing politician and both Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
The high profile trial, which took place over the span of a year and involved 70 hearings, was reportedly dragged out by delay tactics on the part of the Lopez team, including failing to show up for court on several occasions and mounting a thirty day hunger strike.
Responding to the ruling, Lopez told the judge, “You are more afraid to dictate the sentence than I am to hear it”. The statement has been construed by some as a veiled threat. The Lopez defense team has announced that it will appeal the decision.
Fresh violence outside Palace of Justice
Yesterday’s concluding session of the trial saw violent clashes outside the Palace of Justice pitting Lopez supporters against Chavista victims of last year’s opposition violence.
The violence was reportedly sparked by the arrival outside the court building of Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, who has become a key face of the ultra right wing of the Venezuelan opposition.
Although the details remain unclear, one elderly man, Horacio Blanco, has been reported dead of a heart attack. The opposition has blamed Chavistas for the death.
Nonetheless, prior to the incident, opposition leader Freddy Guevara issued a public statement at 11:30am holding President Nicolas Maduro responsible “for any injuries”. Lilian Tintori has called for fresh protests centered in Caracas’ wealthy eastern neighborhood of Chacao, which authorities fear could trigger further violence.
The ruling was applauded by Venezuelan social movements, including the Committee of Victims of the Guarimba and the Ongoing Coup, which has fought tirelessly against impunity in the cases of rightwing violence in 2014 and 2013.
“Justice is finally hearing us, part of the justice, but we will continue the struggle, because there are still material and intellectual actors yet to be brought to justice for these acts,” Committee spokesperson Desiree Cabrera told Venezuelanalysis.
The decision was also upheld by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which issued a public statement on its website.
“The [UNASUR] General Secretary’s office reiterates its respect for the decisions adopted by the juridical authorities of its member states and trusts that in the course of the following judicial incidences, Mr. Leopoldo Lopez can exercise the procedural resources that he considers pertinent in his defense.”
For his part, US Secretary of State John Kerry criticized the ruling, which he says “raises great concern about the political nature of the judicial process” in Venezuela. The statement comes two days after the chief US diplomat phoned Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez reportedly seeking to normalize diplomatic ties between the two countries, a step which Venezuela says is conditional on US recognition of its sovereignty.
Kerry’s comments were echoed by the UN High Commission for Human Rights whose spokesperson Rupert Colville likewise expressed his concern over what he described as a “harsh sentence” marred by “irregularities”.
Several former and sitting heads of state, including Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Colombian ex-president Andres Pastrana, Bolivian ex-president Jorge Quiroga, and Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís, also voiced their rejection of the decision.
Lopez’s case has attracted the vocal support of numerous Latin American ex-presidents, although critics have pointed out that many of these leaders such as Pastrana, Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe, and Mexico’s Felipe Calderon have been themselves accused of human rights violations in their own countries.
Speaking from New York following a meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez hit back at critics, affirming that “public authorities are independent in Venezuela” and “due process and human rights have been respected”.
“I was explaining to the Secretary General that the international community has to be very careful not say that there is a good terrorism when it comes to overthrowing legitimate and constitutional governments other states might not like and a bad terrorism,” she told reporters.
The President of Venezuela’s Supreme Court Gladys Gutierrez also responded to allegations of lack of judicial independence and due process, reaffirming the Venezuelan judiciary’s commitment to guaranteeing a fair trial for all.
“[They] disrespectfully make accusations that are not linked to reality…For every citizen who is subject to a judicial process in national territory, human rights and guarantees are respected just as established in our Fundamental Text, among them the right to defense and due process.”
The ruling was additionally condemned by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW). Amnesty, for its part, decried what it termed the “absolute lack of judicial independence” in Venezuela, while HRW dismissed the verdict as “baseless”, evidencing what it describes as “extreme deterioration of the rule of law in Venezuela”. Nonetheless, both groups have been criticized for their close ties to big Western donors which in the case of HRW takes the form of what has been called a “revolving door” with the US government.
“These groups haven’t showed any concern for all of the dead and wounded as a result of the violence of the guarimbas, but have been exclusively preoccupied with the situation of Leopoldo Lopez,” noted Cabrera, who herself was inside the Ministry of Housing when it was attacked by rightwing militants on April 1, 2014, who attempted to set the government building on fire.
“They’re not interested in listening to us, because I think they are moved by other types of interests. These groups are only ever worried about the victimizers, never the victims,” the human rights activist concluded.