Photo: retrieved

As international public attention was focused on a viral video involving Nicolás Maduro, another one has caused concern, since it could take two men to prison for a long time.

This month, two Merida firefighters were arrested by Military Intelligence for sharing online the video seen above, showing a donkey walking around the fire station of Apartaderos (right in the middle of the páramo), described as “a visit from President Maduro.”

Ricardo Prieto Parra and Carlos Varón were formally charged on September 16 with “inciting hate” under articles 20 and 21 of the Anti-Hate Law, passed last year by the National Constituent Assembly.

Both men deny making the video. If  finally convicted, they could face up to 20 years in prison; an internal inquiry on the matter has been opened as well by the Merida State Fire Corps.

The case has been filled with irregularities, like the delay on the first court audience (contradicting the criminal procedure code in its Article 236), and how the judge is an active chavista loyalist, according to local NGO ODH-ULA. In the meantime, the two firefighters were transferred to Bailadores, without telling relatives.

Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, considers the arrests as “consequence of the implementation of a vague and ambiguous law, passed by the Venezuelan dictatorship.”

For context, there’s a pejorative term used against Maduro in which he’s compared to a donkey (“Maburro”). Opinion articles and magazine covers abroad have used it. Maduro himself is aware of this insult, has addressed it on multiple occasions and, when asked about this case during a recent press conference, Maduro took it really well:

Full solidarity with Agence France Press’ correspondent Esteban Rojas, who didn’t deserve to suffer that kind of verbal abuse for doing a legitimate question of public interest.

This case is another proof of the criminalization of dissidence in Venezuela that goes way back to the controversial Sentence 1,942 of the TSJ’s Constitutional Chamber, which opened the door to punish what authorities could find as “offensive.” The Anti-Hate Law, already born in the worst of circumstances, is simply the weaponization of the chavista ideal.

Venezuelan writer Alberto Barrera Tyszka left it quite clear for the New York Times:

“The prank of two firefighters that wanted to laugh a little at the authorities and at their own misfortune, has found an untempered and ferocious reaction from the government (…) The intolerance to humor sharply reflects the degree of authoritarianism that Maduro needs to continue in power.”

With the harassment of three British journalists, held for several hours by authorities in Zulia this month, the trend is clear. That story isn’t quite over, after the journos returned to Colombia safe and sound and three locals hired to support them are still detained and facing possible charges.

As always, Big Brother is watching.

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