In ordering the trial of four civil society leaders on dubious charges of treason, a Venezuelan court has assented to government persecution of political opponents, Human Rights Watch said today.
Yesterday, a court in Caracas ordered that María Corina Machado and Alejandro Plaz be tried on treason charges brought by a public prosecutor because their nongovernmental organization, Súmate, accepted foreign funds for a program that encouraged citizen participation in a referendum on President Hugo Chavez’s presidency in 2004. Two other Súmate leaders, Luis Enrique Palacios and Ricardo Estévez, will also be tried on charges of complicity with this alleged crime.
“The court has given the government a green light to persecute its opponents,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Prosecuting people for treason when they engage in legitimate electoral activities is utterly absurd.”
Machado and Plaz have been charged under article 132 of the Venezuelan Penal Code with “conspiracy to destroy the nation’s republican form of government.” If convicted, they face up to 16 years in prison.
Súmate engaged in voter outreach and education that encouraged participation in a national referendum to determine whether Chávez should remain in office. The Venezuelan Constitution establishes that elected officials can be subject to recall referendums solicited by at least 20 percent of the corresponding electorate. Chávez won the August referendum by a substantial margin.
The prosecution charged Machado and Plaz with violating Article 132 by receiving financial support for their referendum-related activities from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an organization which is itself financed by the U.S. Congress. According to the NED, Súmate received US$31,150 which was used for workshops to educate citizens regarding Venezuela’s constitutional referendum process.