“Rigged” Trial Could Land Leopoldo López 14 Years in Prison
Judge Susana Barreiro is expected to issue her ruling in López’s trial as early as Friday, and could potentially sentence the Popular Will leader to 14 years in prison.
On Monday, August 31, Venezuela’s Public Ministry issued a press release indicating they expect a guilty verdict against López.
Prosecutors claim they have presented sufficient evidence against López, as well as four other young men tried in the same case, regarding alleged criminal activity during anti-government protests held on February 12, 2014.
The state seeks a 14-year prison sentence for López on conspiracy charges, as well as additional penalties for public incitement to delinquency, damage to property, and arson.
The press release came as no surprise to Jorge Tricás, a professor of political science at Andrés Bello Catholic University. Tricás tells the PanAm Post that the release is meant as a strategy to pressure the judge to rule in the state’s favor.
According to the professor, the prosecution has presented no evidence of López’s guilt, and says the trial against the opposition leader has been “rigged.” Tricás says the case reveals the totalitarian nature of a government that seeks to intimidate citizens who elect to protest the economic, political, and social crisis in Venezuela.
“We already know that the judge in Leopoldo’s case has not administered justice appropriately; she obeys orders from on high. I don’t find it surprising that she is following a script,” he said.
Proceedings are set to continue on Friday, September 4, when judge Susana Barreiro is expected to make a final judgment. Tricás believes the government will seek to make an example out of López to “keep citizens in line.”
“Nobody knows what will happen, though it must already be more than set in stone,” he says. “If the goal is to intimidate the opposition and other leaders, I think the government will ban him [from elections]. They don’t want him as an active opposition leader.… I wouldn’t be surprised if they banned him for 15 years, to prevent him from becoming a presidential candidate.”
A Fearful Regime
Tricás tells the PanAm Post that the government is intent on keeping López in prison, and has reacted against him the same way they have against the Popular Will party, which he says the government seeks to “nullify and take out.”
“The organization that Leopoldo founded along with a group of students in 2007 created the first strong resistance against Hugo Chávez’s regime. The government has gone after Popular Will members, such as former Aragua Mayor Delson Guárate and the political prisoner Daniel Ceballos.”
Tricás says the Nicolás Maduro regime does not target other high-profile opposition leaders because they generally do not call for street demonstrations or take other forceful measures like López.
“Leopoldo makes the government uncomfortable. He, María Corina Machado, and Antonio Ledezma — who is under house arrest — stand for taking action and taking to the streets in the name of freedom, and this makes them uneasy.”
Leopoldo López’s trial has been plagued with irregularities. The preliminary hearing was held in a “mobile court” inside a bus parked in front of the Ramo Verde military prison.
Last September, arson charges for a fire allegedly set in the prosecutor’s office during the day of the protest were dropped during a hearing. The officials in charge of inspecting the scene admitted there had been no such fire.
Prosecutors presented 142 pieces of evidence against López, and his defense was only allowed to present one in return. The judge accepted nearly every piece of evidence the prosecution requested, and rejected almost everything the defense tried to present. In the late stages of the trial, the judge also abruptly suspended the proceedings, after every witness had confirmed the prisoner’s innocence.
In January 2015, the defense complained that prosecutors had not made available their primary piece of evidence against López. They were referring to a report in which linguistic experts claimed López’s YouTube videos contained “subliminal messages” that incited demonstrators’ to violence.
Unlike most trials in Venezuela, López’s proceedings have been conducted behind closed doors, with limited access to family members.