CARACUS – Leopoldo López, leader of the Venezuelan opposition has been sentenced to jail for nearly 14 years after being found guilty of public incitement to violence and criminal association. The verdict follows a wave of anti-government protests that last year left 43 people dead in opposing camps.
Since surrendering to the authorities in February 2014, as thousands took to the streets to demand the resignation of socialist President Nicolás Maduro, Mr López has been incarcerated in a military prison outside Caracas on what his supporters call trumped-up charges.
Before hearing the verdict on Thursday night, Mr López told Judge Susana Barrientos: “If you condemn me, you will fear reading the sentence more than I fear receiving it because you know I am innocent”.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said the Harvard-educated Venezuelan politician had been denied his basic rights as a defendant, and berated the trial as a farce and “a complete travesty of justice”.
He added: “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.”
A state department spokesman said wide-ranging talks this week between John Kerry and his Venezuelan counterpart Delcy Rodriguez included the US’s “concern with the imprisonment of individuals under political pretenses, including Leopoldo López, as well as the nature of Mr López’s trial”.
Although Mr López has called for no violence, he heads the more firebrand wing of the opposition. Supporters of the socialist government pinpoint him as the leader of the 2014 protests against curbs on democratic liberties, rampant crime and a worsening economy, and call him “murderer”.
Tensions flared again earlier on Thursday when violence broke out around the Venezuelan courthouse where Mr López was later sentenced. After the verdict his wife, Lilian Tintori, said he had asked her to urge Venezuelans to stay calm.
The sentencing, which could inflame simmering tensions in the polarised oil-rich nation, comes as an economic crisis exacerbated by lower crude oil prices is eroding the ruling socialist party’s popular support ahead of key parliamentary elections on December 6.