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Explainer: Who Are Venezuela's Political Prisoners?

Lopez poster

A poster of Leopoldo López. (Image: AP)

June 29, 2016

There are 96 political prisoners in Venezuela today, according to Foro Penal, a domestic legal advocacy group. Some are students, others members of the military. Thirty-five are in prison for protesting and three for their use of social media, among other charges. While some figures are well-known—usually for opposing chavismo—others are ordinary citizens as young as 18. Below, we highlight a handful of the most emblematic cases.

Raúl Emilio Baduel: Baduel is a former member of the Venezuelan army who was arrested along with his friend Alexander Tirado in March 2014 on charges of protesting. He’s currently serving an eight-year sentence in Tocuyito prison, west of Caracas. Baduel’s lawyers say chavistas are making an example out of him for military personnel who consider turning against the government. Baduel’s father, Raúl Isaías, was an army general, as well as former President Hugo Chávez’s defense minister, but he resigned and defected to the opposition in 2007 due to concerns he had about Chávez’s constitutional changes. Authorities arrested the elder Baduel in 2009 on corruption charges, and released him in 2015.

Antonio Ledezma: Agents of the federal intelligence agency, known as Sebin, arrested Caracas Mayor Ledezma in his office in February 2015—an event he tweeted. Although Sebin arrested Ledezma without a warrant, President Nicolás Maduro said he was guilty of “crimes against the country.” Ledezma had signed an open letter, along with fellow opposition leaders Leopoldo López and Marina Corina Machado, calling for a transitional government. Chavistas considered the move tantamount to a coup attempt. Ledezma is an outspoken critic of chavistas, who set up an unelected parallel authority and diverted funds from municipal coffers to federal accounts shortly after he first took office in 2008. Reelected to a second term in 2013, Ledezma is stripped of his post while on house arrest and an acting opposition mayor is serving out his term.

Leopoldo López: Arguably Venezuela’s most well-known political prisoner, López is charged with inciting violence during February 2014 antigovernment protests that turned fatal. A court sentenced López, who turned himself in after authorities issued a warrant for his arrest, to almost 14 years in prison in a trial Human Rights Watch called “a farce” and “a clear case of manipulation” by the executive of the judiciary. Students Ángel González, Christian Holdack, and Demián Martín were sentenced at the same time as López for their respective, alleged roles in the protests; Holdack to more than 10 years in prison and González and Martín to four and a half each.

The former mayor of the Caracas municipality of Chacao, López leads the Political Will opposition party and is being held in a military prison called Ramo Verde. In early June, the Maduro administration offered to release him and other prisoners in exchange for the opposition dropping its recall referendum against the president, but López and the opposition coalition refused the deal. Just over two weeks later, a scheduled appeals hearing for López got pushed back to July.

Francisco Márquez and Gabriel San Miguel: In the most recent high-profile arrests, Venezuela National Guardsmen detained political organizers Márquez and San Miguel during a traffic stop in a rural area on June 19. The two men were working for the Popular Will party in the recall referendum process at the time of their detention and had recall materials in the car, as well as cash totaling $3,000. According to opposition politician Manuela Bolívar, intelligence officials questioned the men without attorneys present. The U.S. State Department is following the events, given that Márquez holds dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizenship. On June 21, the two men were charged with money laundering and public incitement.

Manuel Rosales: Rosales—a former Maracaibo mayor, Miranda governor, and congressman—fled the country in 2009 after Chávez’s attorney general charged him with corruption. Rosales was a lightning rod for opposition to the late president, and a frequent target during Chávez’s televised addresses. Although he lost by double digits to Chávez in the 2006 presidential race, Rosales handed Chávez an electoral defeat the following year when he led the campaign against Chávez’s proposed constitutional reforms. Rosales’ wife, Eveling Trejo de Rosales, was elected mayor of Maracaibo in 2010 and won reelection in 2013. Authorities arrested Rosales in October 2015 upon his return flight to the country after he spent six years in exile. He’s being held in the Helicoide, Sebin’s headquarters, while he awaits trial.

Iván Simonovis: Simonovis was the head of the now-defunct Caracas Metropolitan Police during the 2002 coup against Chávez. Arrested and held for more than four years without charges, prosecutors eventually accused him of inciting violence during the coup, and specifically for providing arms and calling on police officers to fire on pro-Chávez protestors. After a three-year trial, a court found him guilty and sentenced him to 30 years in prison. In 2014, Simonovis was released to house arrest while he receives medical treatment for a host of conditions including severe osteoporosis and several herniated disks.