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Venezuela Update: Political Prisoners Face Ongoing Trials

Protests in support of Leopoldo Lopez, Venezuela

(Image: Fernando Llano/AP)

June 10, 2015

As several high-profile political prisoners in Venezuela pursue a hunger strike amid renewed anti-government protests, former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González flew to Caracas this week to try to provide legal help. Though he aimed to represent jailed ex-Chacao Mayor Leopoldo López and former San Cristobal Mayor Daniel Ceballos, authorities prevented González from visiting prisons or attending court hearings. After visiting with prisoners’ families and members of the opposition, he left the country on June 9. Meanwhile, these prisoners await their fate at trial.

After last year’s protests, 33 out of 50 opposition mayors face legal action over activities that range from supporting demonstrations to inciting violence. In February, authorities also imprisoned Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the government. He’s currently under house arrest.

Others aren’t so lucky. After more than a year behind bars, López and Ceballos began a hunger strike last month to protest their prolonged detention. Several other political prisoners and students joined them, with supporters using the #HambrexLibertad (#HungerxFreedom) hashtag on social media.

López’s trial, which began last July, already includes hundreds of hours of testimony. Sometimes weeks go by in between hearings; in March, there were up to three a week. On June 10, López was due in court for his latest hearing, but will not attend due to his weakened health, said his trial lawyer Juan Carlos Gutiérrez.

In an April white paper, López’s international lawyer Jared Genser argued for his immediate release on the grounds that López’s detention and trial violate international law. He also wrote that the government’s case hinges on accusations of López using “subliminal messages” to incite violence. The expert witness called to back this claim regularly writes for a pro-government newspaper and recanted her testimony.

“Without her tying López to these events, there is no legal case against him,” wrote Genser. But, he added, the government began calling more witnesses and “appears determined to convict and sentence him to a lengthy prison term.” López faces up to 10 years in jail.

Ceballos and Ledezma also await a decision from the courts. In May, authorities transferred Ceballos from the same military prison as López to a regular prison. Ceballos’ lawyer requested the indefinite suspension of his trial and for his immediate release on health grounds. He already completed a one-year prison sentence for disobeying orders to take down barricades during the 2014 protests, but in March the government filed new conspiracy charges for supporting the demonstrations. He awaits trial on the new charge.

Meanwhile, due in court on June 9, Ledezma saw his latest hearing suspended, with no reason given and no new date set. He faces up to 28 years in prison.