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A Venezuelan judge sentenced opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez to a maximum sentence of nearly 14 years in prison Thursday for inciting violence in last year’s antigovernment protests.
The decision could further inflame already heated social and economic tensions in the oil-rich nation, and goes against calls for his release from human rights groups, the United Nations, and the United States.
Mr. Lopez has been in a military prison – held in solitary confinement – for the past 18 months. He helped lead the call for antigovernment protests in February 2014, when demonstrators clashed with police and pro-government militias, leading to the deaths of more than 40 people. The protests came amid sky-high inflation, which continues. The economic situation has eroded support for the ruling socialist party ahead of congressional elections on Dec. 6.
Lopez has repeatedly denied charges that he was plotting to overthrow the government, and says he only pushed for peaceful demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro. The government has referred to him as guilty and called him a "terrorist" in the lead-up to the verdict. It imposed the maximum sentence that it could – 13 years, 9 months, 7 days, and 12 hours, in addition to time already served, reports The Associated Press.
The court’s ruling was decried by human rights organizations, which point to irregularities in the case. More than 100 witnesses testified on behalf of the government, yet only one of the defense’s witnesses was allowed to testify on Lopez’s behalf, reports the BBC. Three student leaders were co-defendants in the case and were handed shorter sentences.
“This case is a complete travesty of justice,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “In a country that lacks judicial independence, a provisional judge convicts four innocent people after a trial in which the prosecution did not present basic evidence linking them to a crime, and the accused were not allowed to properly defend themselves.”
About 200 protesters gathered in Caracas after the verdict late Thursday, with many crying and expressing their disbelief, reports The Associated Press. Others took to social media, with some referring to Lopez as Venezuela's Nelson Mandela, reports Reuters. Some observers believe the sentence was handed down now so that any antigovernment protests would fizzle out before the December elections and the opposition would fray.
“The most likely explanation for both the substance and timing of the Lopez sentence is that the administration is seeking to provoke social unrest and divide the opposition,” said Teneo Intelignece Senior Vice President Nicholas Watson in a media note today. “The government stands to benefit most from any flare-up in unrest tied to Lopez’s trial and sentence, as it can portray the opposition as bent on violence and destabilization.”
And the ruling is expected to further strain long-fraught relations with the US, even though the Maduro government says it would like to reset its relationship with Washington, reports The Washington Post.
“This will challenge the new diplomatic channel between Venezuela and the United States developed over the past five months,” David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at Tulane University told the Post. “The US government will not likely break off relations, but they will undoubtedly raise their voice against this.”
Lopez, a former Caracas mayor who studied at Harvard University, is one of a handful of prominent opposition leaders that have been imprisoned by the Maduro administration. And though many see these jailings as a way for the government to remove political hurdles, some opposition politicians, including Lopez, have continued their work behind bars. In June, Lopez went on a 30-day hunger strike to successfully demand congressional elections, now scheduled for December. And in May, two prisoners scored spots on the opposition ballot, reports The Christian Science Monitor.
For years the ruling party in Venezuela has successfully shut down the opposition, and the coalition’s ranks have been historically splintered as a result. But by locking up their leaders, the ruling party may be giving opposition voters clear candidates to rally behind in upcoming mid-term elections.
Looking ahead, Lopez's best shot at early release may be an opposition win in December polls, according to The Washington Post.