2014: When Justice became a Weapon

Venezuela's head-long descent into a savage police state dates back to 2014. Specifically, to Leopoldo López's arrest. Ever since then, I have witnessed first-hand how Human Rights became disposable and Justice became a weapon to get opponents out of the way.

It’s 5:00 in the morning. Sitting on the bus next to me is Leopoldo López. Hours have passed since we heard the judge confirm that Leopoldo would remain imprisoned in Ramo Verde, the same military prison where our bus is parked and where the preliminary hearing was held. They are making us wait to sign the ruling, even though it was long ago drafted and we just witnessed its execution.

In Venezuela, justice is a lot like this bus. It’s falling apart, it’s rotten, and it’s driven by the incompetent. On this bus, as in the country, there’s no space for Human Rights.

The night started a week before, on February 12th, 2014, when Leopoldo, María Corina Machado and Antonio Ledezma, the main figures of the La Salida movement, joined a student demonstration asking for the liberation of the students unfairly detained in Táchira. A rally in Plaza Venezuela, a few speeches and the all too familiar route for marches (Plaza Venezuela/Avenida Libertador/Avenida México), to end in the Ministerio Publico, where our then-complicit Prosecutor General, Luisa Ortega Díaz, had her office.

Demonstrators arrived peacefully. Not much paraphernalia, a few handheld loudspeakers pointed at the classic closed doors and no one inside to answer them. Time went by, speeches were given and Luisa remained a no-show. From the roof of an SUV, Leopoldo López declared “We came in peace and we’ll leave in peace.” It would be the last time an opposition rally could walk freely in downtown Caracas.

As most people that had been in attendance, Leopoldo was riding the subway when the news of the shots came. Less than two hours after the demonstration ended, and without much investigation, Luisa Ortega went on TV blaming “political factors” for the violence, falsely saying that the Ministerio Publico caught fire and lamenting that their lives had been at risk. No words for Bassil Dacosta and Robert Redman, young Venezuelans murdered by government officers minutes earlier. Nicolás Maduro, in a compulsory national TV broadcast, also pointed fingers: a group of “infiltrados” caused the violence and someone had to be jailed.

Demonstrators arrived peacefully. Not much paraphernalia, a few handheld loudspeakers pointed at the classic closed doors.

This is how the Prosecutor General and SEBIN, the secret police, created the script. La Salida, Leopoldo López, María Corina Machado and Antonio Ledezma (among others) were guilty.

Leopoldo would be cast as public enemy number one, and dozens of students were arbitrarily detained, tortured and harmed by law enforcement officers. A few were held just to be tried, just so they could have scapegoats on whom to blame the crimes supposedly orchestrated by the alleged villain. The regularly sluggish Venezuelan justice issued arrest orders and search warrants: the witchhunt was on.

A couple of days later, a report from Ultimas Noticias would unveil how SEBIN and the Interior Ministry were responsible for the violence. It didn’t matter: the second in command of Voluntad Popular, Carlos Vecchio, was implicated (he would later flee the country) and Leopoldo himself was taken hostage by Nicolás Maduro’s government. Driven to Ramo Verde by one of his high-ranking kidnappers, we would end up on the bus, after a whole day in the Palacio de Justicia. Rules of procedure didn’t apply, we were told, and the hearing was held on a bus parked at the entrance of a military jail.

A year and a half later, after being isolated and tortured, Leopoldo López was sentenced to 13 years, 9 months, 7 days and 12 hours of jail, to be served in Ramo Verde; the sham trial, biased and full of vices, came to an end after only allowing one piece of evidence provided by the defense (against a fabricated 138 from the prosecution). A year later, the appeal was dismissed without further revision and, in February 2017, the Supreme Tribunal would deny the appeal. To this day, Leopoldo remains under house arrest with harsh restrictions, banned from making any kind of public statement.

The witch-hunt wasn’t over, though, and that unorthodox hearing was the first of many unfair procedures to eliminate and intimidate all political opposition.

San Cristóbal and San Diego mayors, Daniel Ceballos and Enzo Scarano, were removed from office and detained with “express trials” for allowing citizens to exercise their legitimate right to free speech and their right to public demonstrations within their municipalities. A few months later, Diosdado Cabello would arbitrarily dismiss María Corina Machado from the National Assembly, stripping her of her parliamentary immunity and publicly charging her with a conspiracy to assassinate the president. Without a grain of legality the most voted member of the parliament was removed. Harsh restrictions would be imposed on Machado. To this day, those restrictions prevent her from traveling outside the country.

A year and a half later, after being isolated and tortured, Leopoldo López was sentenced to 13 years, 9 months, 7 days and 12 hours of jail.

Antonio Ledezma was next, arrested in early 2015 on a bogus case of conspiracy theories. He would suffer the same fate of Leopoldo, with an unjust trial and house arrest.

It was not just political leaders. In 2014, 3,459 Venezuelans were subjected to criminal procedures for doing political activism or being linked to political parties. Speaking out began to be punished by jail and due process was an expendable warranty.

In 2014 judicial independence died: 15 years of provisory judges, illegal and unconstitutional Supreme Tribunal appointments, corruption and servility had taken a toll. The Afiuni effect was omnipresent and no judges would dare do something different than what was asked from them by their superiors. Law or Rights didn’t matter anymore. La Salida left a very different country: masks were off. Human Rights were disposable and Justice was turned into a weapon used by the government to get opponents out of the way. Now we knew, there were no boundaries to what chavismo would do to remain in power and dissidence had to be silenced.

Three years have passed, new demonstrations have come (and gone). The death toll lies in the hundreds, the list of political prisoners, many still awaiting trial, has grown to an anonymous, three-digit number. At least twenty opposition leaders, including Henrique Capriles Radonski, have been barred from running for public office on fabricated charges. Thirty-six of the seventy-seven opposition mayors in Venezuela are either jailed, exiled, or under criminal investigation. The opposition vice president of the National Assembly is seeking exile in the Chilean Embassy. Luisa Ortega Díaz, one of the key players in the persecution against the opposition, now opposes the government, championing the justice she helped bury.

I still wish that the bus with the blue seats had not housed a sham tribunal, that instead of being parked outside Ramo Verde to hold a fake trial it had been put to a better use, that instead of waiting all night for an unfair decision we had been waiting to go touring around the country to build a better tomorrow.

All we got was a one-way ticket on a tour of Human Rights violations, and justice became the first victim.