Caracas, January 3, 2008, (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez granted amnesty on Monday to a number of opposition leaders connected to the shortlived military coup against his government in April 2002 and a two month oil industry shutdown which caused an estimated $10 billion dollars damage to the economy and ended in January 2003.
Chavez said he hoped the amnesty decree would “send a message to the country that we can live together despite our differences.”
However, he rejected opposition claims that those charged and convicted in relation to the coup are victims of political persecution, saying, “It is false that anyone in Venezuela is imprisoned for their political ideas.”
Among the beneficiaries of the amnesty are those who wrote and signed the infamous “Carmona decree” of the 48 hour coup government which dissolved a number of democratically elected public institutions such as the Supreme Court and the National Assembly.
The measure also covers those charged with the illegal arrest and detention of former Interior Minister, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, the forced entry of the residence of National Assembly Deputy Iris Valera and the illegal takeover of the Governorships of Merida and Tachira, and the Court of Justice in Tachira, as well as those responsible for the closure of state owned VTV, the takeover of oil tankers during the oil industry shutdown, and those accused of inciting civil rebellion up to December 2, 2007.
Chavez made clear that the decree does not cover “those persons who have committed crimes against humanity, grave violations of human rights, and crimes of war,” or “those who are fugitives from justice, those who never wanted to recognize Venezuelan institutions.”
This rules out amnesty for businessman Pedro Carmona Estanga, who illegally declared himself president during the coup; union boss Carlos Ortega, who led the oil industry shutdown, and ex-governor of Miranda, Enrique Mondoza, who closed down VTV during the coup and went into hiding rather than face charges, ex-governor of Yaracuy, Eduardo Lapi, and a number of Generals and other military officials.
Also excluded from the amnesty are eleven Metropolitan police officers facing charges relating to the coup including crimes against humanity and violation of human rights.
In an attack that triggered the coup, Metropolitan police officers aligned with the oppostion, opened fire with long-range rifles, sub-machine guns, and other weapons, on groups of pro- and anti-government protesters in Avenida Baralt and Puente Llaguno, near the presidential palace on April 11, 2002. Nineteen people were shot dead and a futher 200 were injured during the confrontation.
Former director of the Metropolitian police, Henry Vivas and officers Lázaro Forero and Iván Simonovis are accused of co-ordinating the attack and a further eight Metropolitan police officers are also charged with participating in the shootings.
The decree has sparked a debate throughout the country, with sectors of the opposition, including the heirarchy of the Catholic Church, arguing that although the amnesty is a “positive step” it is also “discriminatory” and should broadened to cover the eleven police officers as well as third parties facing charges not directly related to the coup, such as 40 year old opposition student leader Nixon Moreno, who is wanted in relation to the attempted rape of a female police officer in Merida.
Cardenal Jorge Urosa said, “I believe that it is important that Siminovis, Vivas, and Forero, who have been imprisoned for three years, with trials that have not finished, can recuperate their liberty. The crimes of which they are accused are very confusing.”
Mónica Fernández, representative lawyers group, Foro Penal Venezolano, also called for the amnesty to be broadened to include “political exiles” such as Carmona Estanga and Ortega.
Fernández herself is a beneficiary of the decree. A former judge, Fernández was charged in December 2004
with the crimes of “illegal deprivation of liberty” and “abuse of authority” for having ordered the illegal arrest of ex-Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín during the coup.
Sectors that support Chavez have also rejected the decree, arguing that the opposition sectors that carried out the coup and oil industry shutdown have not shown any remorse or will to rectify their actions.
Manuel Rodríguez, told ABN that the president should not have signed the decree. “Where were our human rights when they [the oppostion] paralyzed the country?” he asked.
David Alvarado agreed, the amnesty decree should take into account the rights of the people affected by the coup and oil industry shutdown, he argued.
However, other sectors have manifested their support for Chavez’s decision, saying he aims to maintain peace and promote coexistance and peaceful debate with the oppostion.
Yesenia Fuentes, a Chavez supporter who was shot in the face by a Metropolitan police unit during the coup, expressed relief that those charged with crimes against humanity and violations of human rights would not be granted amnesty.
“Our slogan since 2002 is ‘Without justice there will never be peace,’ and we will carry this banner until we see these eleven criminals, including Forero, Vivas and Simonovis, in a maximum security prison like common prisoners,” she said.
Antonio Molina, a lawyer representing the Association of Victims of the April 11, 2002 coup, condemned opposition calls to extend the amnesty to cover the eleven police officers.
The opposition campaign aims to convince public opinion that the police officers are being discriminated against, Molina said. Rather, he clarified, it is the serious nature of the charges, including crimes against humanity and violations of human rights, that impedes any amnesty.
“The Venezuelan state cannot, under any circumstance, grant any type of beneficial treatment to these people, because that would imply impunity,” Molina explained.
In a second decree Chavez also pardoned 36 prisoners convicted of various crimes, a number of prisoners diagnosed with AIDS were pardoned for humanitarian reasons and others for good behaviour and having completed more than half their sentence.