Trial Against Venezuelan NGO Annulled, To Begin Anew in March

Amid debates about freedom of dissent and independence of the judiciary, an appeals court ruled to nullify the trial of four leaders of the opposition NGO Súmate. The trial will start over again in March.

Caracas, Venezuela, February 11, 2006—The decisions made thus far in the trial of four Súmate leaders charged with conspiracy, was annulled on technical grounds and a new trial is scheduled to begin in late March.

The decision was made, according to defense attorney Juan Martín Echeverría, because the judge in the trial decided to do without jurors, even though the defendants did not agree with the decision, which is a violation of Venezuela’s 1999 constitution. 

"This ruling takes us back to the starting point," defense lawyer Juan Martín Echeverría told El Universal. 

Súmate’s two directors, María Corina Machado and Alejandro Plaz, were on trial for treason, another two leaders, Luis Enrique Palacios and Ricardo Estévez, were on trial for complicity in the crime.  

The directors have been summonsed to appear before the court again on March 29 to face new charges. Prosecution spokesmen told the Daily Journal the new court date was a month and a half away because the investigation was continuing. 

Last July, the charges were brought against the four Súmate members because of a grant received from the US Congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy. Article 25 of Venezuela’s Law of Political Parties, Public Meetings and Demonstrations, (LPPRPM) prohibits political parties from receiving funding from foreign sources, but carries no penalty. Instead, the charges, for which prosecutors were seeking up to 23 years, were primarily based on the conspiracy articles in the Venezuelan penal code. 

Supporters of the trial have argued that through its actions during the 2004 recall referendum, which included developing a comprehensive electoral database, stationing computers at signature collection locales, being engaged in the signature verification process, and conducting exit polls, Súmate, which describes itself as a civil association, effectively made itself a parallel Electoral Council. “I see it as something very dangerous, the intention that some political actors have to replace the national electoral council with private institutions that would fulfill regulating functions, and receive private funds. That would be as if private courts were to be established that would belong to a private company and would make decisions about the imprisonment of Venezuelans,” Jorge Rodriguez, one of five principal members of the National Electoral Council, told in an April 2004 interview, apparently referring to Súmate. 

Opponents have criticized the charges, noting they appear to be contrived, and say that a conviction of the four Súmate leaders could create uncertainty about what constitutes working against Republican institutions, rather than legitimate political dissent. “The court has given the government a green light to persecute its opponents,” said José Miguel Vivanco, a critic of the Chávez government and Americas director at Human Rights Watch, in a press release last July. “Prosecuting people for treason when they engage in legitimate electoral activities is utterly absurd.”   

State prosecutors, though, have argued that Sumate illegally diverted NED funds from legitimate voter workshops, for which the funds were intended, towards the recall referendum against President Chavez in August 2004. By using funds from a foreign government for a political campaign and for supplanting a branch of government Sumate committed treason, according to prosecutors.

Súmate members have criticized the judicial branch for being under the control of the executive. Critics respond that this argument is weakened when court decisions, such as this one and the decision to try the group’s leaders in freedom, show the independence of the judiciary.