Washington, D.C.—On September 10, Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo López was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison for allegedly inciting violence as part of anti-government protests last year.
“López’s conviction is a blatant display of the government’s willingness to criminalize political adversaries,” said Joy Olson, Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “Using the legal system to punish political opponents has no place in a democracy,” she said.
Democratic governments of course have the right and duty to defend themselves against efforts to incite violence, especially violence intended to destabilize and topple duly elected leaders. But rather than ensure the highest judicial standards, the case against López was conducted in a way that appeared to cast aside the presumption of innocence and assume a guilty verdict from the outset.
“The gravity of the charges that the government made against López required a serious judicial process,” explained WOLA Senior Fellow David Smilde. “But the trial showed scant regard for actual evidence and barely even the pretense of judicial independence.”
For example, the court allowed the government to present over a hundred witnesses, while all but two of the defendant’s witnesses were excluded from testifying. Moreover, the presiding judge holds only a provisional appointment, and could therefore be removed by the government at any time, eliminating any judicial independence she might have wished to exercise.
The Maduro government should immediately cease judicial harassment of political opponents.