(New York) – The baseless conviction of the opposition leader Leopoldo López and three Venezuelan students for violent incidents during the country’s 2014 protests exposes the extreme deterioration of the rule of law in Venezuela, Human Rights Watch said today. The trials involved egregious due process violations and failed to provide evidence linking the accused to a crime.

On September 10, 2015, a judge convicted López and sentenced him to 13 years, nine months, seven days, and 12 hours in prison for all the charges brought against him by the prosecution, including public incitement and association to commit crimes during a demonstration in Caracas on February 12, 2014. Three students whose cases were linked to López’s were also sentenced, two to four years and six months, and one to more than 10 years. López will remain in prison, and the students were granted conditional liberty.

“This case is a complete travesty of justice,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “In a country that lacks judicial independence, a provisional judge convicts four innocent people after a trial in which the prosecution did not present basic evidence linking them to a crime, and the accused were not allowed to properly defend themselves.”

Prosecutors brought charges against Lopez immediately after the February 12 protest following accusations by government officials that he had incited protest-related violence, including attacks on government offices and vehicles. López turned himself in on February 18, 2014 and has been held in the Ramo Verde military prison ever since.

Anti-government protesters shout during a protest against Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela on March 3, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

The arrest warrant acknowledged that he left the place where the attacks occurred before they took place but relied, as evidence of his criminal responsibility, on an alleged series of “statements with subliminal messages” he had issued through Twitter. However, it did not specify how this alleged “subliminal” or indirect discourse had actually led to the commission of crimes.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the judicial files on the case and did not identify any probative evidence presented by prosecutors at trial that would substantiate the charges. López’s defense team told Human Rights Watch that the judge discarded its arguments and did not admit any of its evidence, except for the testimony of two witnesses that had been introduced by the prosecution.  

Venezuelan law and international human rights standards provide that, except in very specific circumstances, criminal cases should be open to the public. But members of the public —including journalists and international observers — were not allowed to attend the trial.

Security forces arbitrarily detained the three convicted students — Christian Holdack, Demian Martin, and Ángel González — after the February 12, 2014 protest.  They told Human Rights Watch that they suffered physical abuse during their arrest and at the headquarters of the investigative police in the area, where they were held incommunicado for 48 hours. During their detention, the students did not have access to their lawyers and were not permitted to see their families.

This case is a complete travesty of justice.

José Miguel Vivanco

Americas director

They were eventually brought before a judge and charged with several crimes. The evidence the prosecutor offered included clothing the students said security officials had stained with gasoline, and photographs of unidentifiable individuals engaged in confrontations with security forces placed alongside the men’s head shots taken at the police station.

A fourth student implicated in the case, Marco Aurellio Coello, fled Venezuela in early September.

The Venezuelan judiciary has largely ceased to function as an independent branch of government since a political takeover of the Supreme Court in 2004 by then-President Hugo Chávez and his supporters. Members of the Supreme Court have openly rejected the principle of separation of powers, publicly pledged their commitment to advancing the government’s political agenda, and repeatedly ruled in favor of the government, validating the government’s disregard for human rights.

A majority of Venezuelan judges do not have tenure and may be removed through processes that lack basic due process guarantees. This opens the door to arbitrary removals as a consequence of the decisions they adopt, contradicting basic international human rights standards and seriously undermining judicial independence in the country, Human Rights Watch said.

“We’ve seen the brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters last year, the complicity of prosecutors who opened criminal cases against the victims while ignoring clear signs of abuse, and now the conviction of three students and a prominent political opponent based on totally unsubstantiated charges,” Vivanco said. “What else do Latin American governments need to finally call on the Maduro administration to end its repression.”