(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.
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.”