Caracas, Venezuela – Almost a year and a half since protests emerged in the streets of Caracas and other states of the country, Venezuela’s opposition leader Leopoldo López was sentenced to 13 years and 9 months of prison.
He was declared guilty for charges of arson, public incitement, and conspiracy related to a major anti-government protest on February 12, 2014, which left three protesters dead, and to the events that later took place. During the following weeks after the initial protest, “guarimbas” or street barricades, vandalism and violence reigned across Venezuela, leaving a total of 43 opposition followers, government supporters, and national guardsmen dead.
Lopez has been longtime recognized as a strong opposition leader from the former President Hugo Chávez and current President Nicolás Maduro regimes. Since February last year, López has been jailed at the military prison Ramo Verde. The judge has been far from friendly to López’s defense, rejecting (except for one) all 65 witnesses his attorneys sought to call, while admitting 108 witnesses for the prosecution. “This isn’t a trial. It’s a firing squad,” Lopez wrote in his journal.
Amnesty International has called the case “politically motivated” and other organizations such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Un Committee Against Torture, 33 former Ibero-American presidents and prime ministers, the European Parliament, Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group, and many others, have requested the immediate release of Lopez.
The news have made outraged opposition supporters all over the country to banged pots and pans, a traditional way of protest in Venezuela called “cacerolazo”. As there is a marked censorship in the traditional media (TV, radio and newspapers), social networks were immediately filled with raging comments about the ultimate decision of the trial. Twitter users created in solidarity the number one trending topic of the day #VenezuelaConLeopoldo, which means “Venezuela with Leopoldo”.
Earlier Thursday, many Lopez and opposition sympathizers gathered together outside the ‘Palacio de Justicia’ waiting for the sentence to be revealed. However, things quickly escalated to violence when both government and opposition supporters encountered, leaving an activist from “Voluntad Popular”, López political party, dead due to a heart attack.
Chronology of the Trial
In February 12, 2014, López invited Venezuelans to take the streets calling for a “pacific” protest named “La Salida.” He led the huge wave of people who followed him to the “Fiscalía General” to request the release of several university students who were detained in various protests on the previous days. The event ended in a major revolt, with the deaths of Juan Montoya, coordinator of the paramilitary group called “5 de marzo” and Bassil Da Costa, a 23 year old college student. Later that day, Robert Redman, 31, an opposition supporter, was also killed by a gunshot.
In February 13, an official arrest warrant was issued against Leopoldo López, as he was blamed by the government for being responsible for the occurred events. Then, in February 18, in the middle of a massive gathering, López voluntarily turned himself to the authorities. He was immediately taken to Ramo Verde military prison.
In February 19, the Public Ministry charged him for alleged public incitement, property damages, arson and vandalism. February 29, authorities prohibit Lilian Tintori, López’s wife, and their children to visit him during his birthday. He was also punished with isolation, after giving declarations to Spanish newspaper ABC.
In May 2, 2014, the preliminary hearing began, and in July 23, the trial started. During July and August, both Tintori and León Jurado (López attorney) denounced acts of beating and torture to López, Enzo Scarano (former mayor of San Diego, Valencia) and Salvatore Lucchese (former director of the police force from San Diego, Valencia).
In August 23, the UN’s Human Rights Council requested the release of Lopez. Then, US President Barack Obama also called for the release of the opposition leader.
November 24, López, Scarano, Lucchese, and Daniel Ceballos (former mayor of San Cristóbal, Táchira) issued a manifesto reporting to have received inhuman treatment. In November 28, López refused to assist to trial until a decision was made regarding to the UN’s release petition.
May 23, 2015, López announced he began a hunger strike. Among many requests he made, one of the most demanded was for the government to officially schedule the date for the parliamentary elections.
June 26, 2015, López ends the hunger strike after the “Centro Nacional Electoral” (CNE) announced the date of the elections.
Finally, August 10, 2015, judge Susana Barreiros sentenced Leopoldo López for 13 years, 9 months, 7 days and 12 hours at Ramo Verde Military prison.
It is relevant to point out the fact that the arrested mayors listed before were all democratically elected opposition candidates.
More about Leopoldo
Leopoldo Lopez has been for years one of the most prominent opposition figures in Venezuelan politics, among other characters such as Henrique Capriles Radonski, Maria Corina Machado, Chuo Torrealba, and many more. During his youth he studied in several schools in the US, including the Hun School of Princeton, Kenyon College, Ohio, and Harvard University.
He is a direct descendant of Venezuela’s liberator and Latin America’s independence leader Simón Bolívar, positioning him among the country’s wealthiest families.
Lopez’s critics have paint him as a dangerous radical in the pocket of Venezuela’s wealthy elite and the US government. They accused him for his “attempts” to unseat President Hugo Chavez in 2002. Allegedly, Lopez helped organize the illegal arrest of one of Chavez’s cabinet member, during a failed coup attempt.
However, he was elected as mayor of Chacao, a district in Caracas, from 2000 to 2008, after being chosen for two consecutive periods: first from 2000 to 2004 with 51% of the votes and from 2004 to 2008 with the vast majority of 79.5%. Additionally, he is the national coordinator of Voluntad Popular.
When his second period as mayor ended, Lopez aimed to run for mayor of Caracas, but due to alleged irregularities found during his management, the “Contraloría General” issued a sanction which disabled him to opt for any charge until 2014.
As for now, the situation of Venezuela remains uncertain. For December 6, 2015, parliamentary elections are set to take place. Meanwhile, the country is going through a very concerning situation.
For instance, there is a major national lack of basic products such as flour, milk, sugar, grains, coffee, toilet paper, medications, and many more, as the economy continues tumbling; the insecurity rate has established the country’s capital as the second most dangerous city in the world, with robberies, kidnappings and homicides happening on a daily basis and with a high level of impunity.
Moreover, economists reported that in July, the basic food basket reached an outrageous price of BsF 44.062,22, while the official minimum wage is of BsF. 7.421,68. That means that you would need to save over 5 months of your entire salary (if you earn minimum wage, which is very common) to be able to buy essential alimentary products.
Currently there is conflict with neighbor Colombia, as President Maduro deported thousands of Venezuelan/Colombian residents after some confusing facts involving military attacks in the border. The country’s politicians are calling for all of Venezuelans to go vote on December, and try to give democracy one more chance.