On October 23, a month after a Venezuelan court sentenced the opposition leader Leopoldo López to almost 14 years in prison, one of the prosecutors in the case, Franklin Nieves, showed up in Miami and declared that the trial had been a “farce.” The evidence against López, he said, was non-existent or fabricated.
I recently brought a team of Human Rights Watch lawyers to meet with Nieves, review his claims, and see if they were consistent with what we knew from court documents. They were.
The trial court convicted López of four crimes related to the events on February 12, 2014, when a street demonstration in Caracas that started peacefully ended with protesters attacking the Office of the Attorney General and official vehicles nearby.
Among the crimes of which López was convicted was arson. Nieves contended at López’s trial that he was responsible for a fire in the library of the Attorney General’s Office ignited by a Molotov cocktail thrown by protesters.
But there was no fire, Nieves told us, which means there could have been no arson. Interestingly enough, according to a report by attorney general’s forensic experts included in the criminal file, the only thing that burned was a portion of the wick on a Molotov cocktail that was found in the library but that failed to explode.
Of course, an unexploded firebomb might have been grounds for a charge of attempted arson. But to prove such a charge against López, prosecutors would have had to show that he directed the attempt. The prosecutors had no such evidence, Nieves told us, and our review of the documents confirmed that. Nor did prosecutors present evidence that López incited other damage to the building—a second charge on which he was convicted.
Judge Susana Barreiros cited a speech that López delivered to the crowd hours before the violence broke out, but she quoted no explicit incitement to violence and, to the contrary, recognized that he’d asked the crowd for “peace and calm.”
Judge Barreiros likewise convicted López of a more general charge of “instigation to commit crimes.” She said that although López had called for a “constitutional exit” of the Maduro government, he intended to get rid of the current administration through street protests, disobedience of the laws, and ignoring legitimate authorities.
To substantiate that charge, the prosecution relied on two expert witnesses—chosen, Nieves told us, because of their close ties to the government. The experts analyzed several of López’s speeches and hundreds of his Twitter messages on and before February 12, and while both reported that López never explicitly incited others to commit crimes, prosecutors argued that one alleged that López had used “subliminal” messages for that purpose.
On the fourth count, “belonging to an organized crime group,” the judge said that when López allegedly instigated the violence he was operating as part of a “structured group of political leaders.” The only evidence cited by the judge in reaching this conclusion is the fact that two other opposition politicians were with him when he gave his speech on February 12.
Pressured by his superiors to produce an arrest warrant on February 12, when he had yet to receive a signed police report, Nieves also took steps to correct the wording of the warrant after the fact. This included obtaining witness testimony the following day, backdating it and then including it in the prosecution file, to make it appear as if the warrant had been issued based on such testimony, he told us. However, the testimony on file by two security officials who were apparently confused by or unaware of the backdating refers to the demonstration as having happened “yesterday”—that is, the day before it actually occurred.
Under pressure from his superiors, Nieves hobbled the defense by excluding most of the evidence that López’s lawyers wanted to introduce, he told us. Despite having a legal obligation under Venezuelan law to pursue evidentiary leads requested by the defense, Nieves told us the same thing as López’s attorney: that he initially accepted a slew of evidence from the defense team but backtracked two days later.
What we learned from Nieves and the trial documents was that the charges were chosen and the case shaped to ensure that López would spend the maximum time in prison. Subtract the odd “belonging to an organized crime group” conviction, and López could have served fewer than nine years. Subtract the bizarre “arson” conviction, as well, and his sentence could have dropped below five years—in which case, under Venezuelan law, López would have been eligible for alternatives to prison.
Nieves said that his superiors told him that the order to ensure a long sentence for López came from President Nicolás Maduro himself. While this isn’t a claim that we can corroborate, there is no doubt that the trial documents support Nieves’s account of a blatantly political prosecution.
For years, leaders throughout Latin America have turned a blind eye to the dramatic deterioration of human rights protections in Venezuela. But two weeks ago, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro spoke up, with a public letter criticizing the jailing of López and multiple ways the Maduro administration has abused its power. Leaders in the region should use the OAS to press Venezuela to immediately release López and others who are arbitrarily detained, and to fight the government’s resistance to grant independent human rights monitors access to the country.
José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch.