Caracas, February 17, 2016 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuela’s opposition-majority National Assembly approved the controversial Amnesty and National Reconciliation Law in first discussion yesterday, which could exonerate dozens convicted of various crimes over the last seventeen years, including those responsible for 2014’s violent anti-government protests known as the guarimbas.
As one of the opposition’s signature campaign promises in legislative elections held this past December, the new law is aimed at alleged “victims of political persecution”, the most high-profile of whom is the Harvard-educated lawyer and ex-mayor of Chacao, Leopoldo Lopez.
Lopez was sentenced to 13 years in September for his role in leading the 2014 protests that saw right-wing groups erect violent street barricades in wealthy neighborhoods across the country demanding the “exit” of democratically elected President Nicolas and resulting in the deaths of 43 people, the majority of whom passerby and security personnel.
While Lopez has been hailed as a “political prisoner” by the opposition, the international media, and a host of right-wing Latin American ex-presidents who have clamored for his release, Venezuelan social movements have defended the politician’s conviction and repudiated the proposed amnesty law for its reported sanctioning of impunity.
“We reject this law because it would promote impunity for those responsible for the deaths and injuries of which we’ve been victims,” explains Desiree Cabrera, a spokesperson for the Victims of the Guarimba and Continuing Coup, whose then-19 month old daughter was one of the 94 children trapped in the nursery at the Ministry of Housing and Habitat building in Chacao when it was set on fire by molotov-wielding protesters on April 1, 2014.
The law has, nonetheless, been upheld by opposition legislators who regard it as a necessary step in the path towards “national reconciliation and social peace”.
“It’s an opportunity for the country to enter a new era,” pledged opposition deputy Freddy Guevara, who leads Lopez’s Popular Will party in parliament.
But Cabrera says that there is a conflict of interest, pointing out that a number of the lawmakers involved in drafting the legislation are themselves linked to the violent protests.
“This is a law of self-amnesty, because the same groups who promoted the violence are trying to create impunity via an amnesty law when some of the recently elected opposition deputies– Freddy Guevara, Juan Riquesens, Juan Guaido, Gaby Arellano, and others– themselves appeared in the photo on the day [February 12, 2014] that the protests known as the “Exit” began,” the human rights activist told Venezuelanalysis.
The law goes as far as to list specific incidents that qualify for amnesty, ranging chronologically from the violent opposition protests of 2003 and 2004 through the 2013 street violence following Capriles’ rejection of the presidential election results to the 2014 guarimba.
Beyond the 33 incidents designated for amnesty, the law also extends a pardon to those convicted or accused of any one of 24 offenses committed since January 1, 1999, provided that they were perpetrated in the context of “protests or demonstrations or meetings with a political end”.
These pardoned crimes include “violence or resistance to authority”, “arson”, “damage to property”, “damage to the national electrical system”, “military rebellion”, “damage to transport systems, public services”, “incitement to hate”, “destruction or deterioration of roads”, among numerous others.
According to Guevara , the law could benefit some 200 people, including so-called “victims of administrative persecution”, such as ex-Zulia governor Manuel Rosales– jailed on corruption and embezzlement charges– or PDVSA managers fired for their role in the 2002 oil lockout aimed at toppling the Chávez government.
For his part, Pedro Careño of the PSUV-led minority bloc in parliament has expressed his party’s rejection of the law, which he denounced as a “confession of the criminal record of the reactionary right-wing”.
“This amnesty law confesses that since 1999 the opposition has committed insurrectional acts and we have lived under a permanent state of coup,” he observed.
Despite staunch socialist opposition, the majority-backed legislation will now go to President Maduro, who can request revisions and modifications, but who does not hold veto powers. He can, however, petition the Supreme Court of Justice to review the law, if he feels that it violates the constitution.
However, for Cabrera and other grassroots activists, the struggle against the law continues in the streets and in the courts.
“We will continue the fight against the law, taking to the streets and educating people about its content and trying all of the legal mechanisms available to annul [the law], including the Supreme Court of Justice” she declared.
Once enacted, the law will be the second of its kind in the modern democratic history of Venezuela, following the 2007 amnesty decree approved by then-president Hugo Chávez for participants in the 2002 US-sponsored coup, which include numerous protagonists in today’s opposition.