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Venezuela’s Most Famous Dissident Gets 13 Years

The outcome of Leopoldo López's trial is even worse than his supporters feared. But President Maduro's victory may be short-lived.

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The trial against Leopoldo López, the jailed leader of Venezuela’s opposition, was never expected to be fair. Yet when Judge Susana Barreiros handed down her ruling late last night, sentencing López to 13 years in military prison for inciting violence and other bogus charges, it was a hard blow for his supporters. Many had harbored hopes that he would be freed, or at most be given house arrest.

The ruling is a travesty. Instead of closing a chapter, it marks a deepening of Venezuela’s political and economic collapse. It is also a strategic error on the part of the government of President Nicolás Maduro.

López was imprisoned after calling for peaceful protests against the government in February 2014. His message was for Venezuelans to take the streets with the cry of “La Salida” (“The Exit”) and to press for the ouster of the unpopular Maduro using constitutional means, such as a recall referendum. After López was jailed, the protests became violent, leaving 43 people dead — most from the opposition, but also including a few government supporters and soldiers. The hazy narrative surrounding these events is part of the reason why López remains a controversial figure both inside the opposition and in Venezuela at large.

The government blamed López for all these deaths, even though he was being held in prison, incommunicado, when they took place. The prosecution’s main argument was that, by calling on people to take to the streets, he was encouraging violence and “terrorism.” He was also charged with conspiracy, incitement to commit crimes, and damaging public property.

The star witness for the government was a linguistics professor named Rosa Amelia Asuaje, who claimed López had used “subliminal” messages in his speeches and writings which called for violence. But when cross-examined by the defense, Asuaje recanted, stating that “López’s messages are not subliminal; they are clear, direct, and specific. They call for non-violence. There was never a call to violence by López.” (A white paper prepared by López’s defense team lays out the details — no official transcripts or records of the trial have been made available.)

This apparent collapse of the government’s case meant nothing, since it was never about the law. The proceedings, marred by irregularities and violence, were part of a political circus from start to finish.

That said, circuses are usually meant for public spectacle, while these proceedings were held in conditions of absolute secrecy. No international observers were allowed inside the courtroom, even though Venezuelan law allows for access to trials. Secret videos leaked from the fortified courtroom have made their way to the public, and in them, López comes across as defiant despite the lack of due process.

The unfairness of the trial was obvious. Take, for example, the imbalance in the evidence allowed by each side. The prosecution was allowed 82 witnesses, mostly police or public prosecutors on the government’s payroll. The defense was allowed only two. Numerous exhibits submitted by the defense were declared inadmissible.

The judge did not take into consideration López’s many calls for peaceful protests. She rebuffed calls from the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the U.N. Committee Against Torture for Venezuelan authorities to allow López a fair trial and improve the conditions of his detention. For much of his trial, López was held in isolation in a military jail. Even his reading material was taken away.

The government has been heavily invested in the López case from day one. National Assembly President (and Venezuela’s No. 2 leader) Diosdado Cabello personally drove López to jail when he turned himself in. Maduro himself has publicly condemned López on numerous occasions, labeling him “the monster of Ramo Verde” after the military prison that houses him. He even offered to free López if the U.S. government would release a Puerto Rican “political prisoner.”

Judge Barreiros, like most Venezuelan judges, is a temporary judge. This means she can be replaced at will by judicial authorities closely linked to the government. In a curious twist, she was initially named a judge as a substitute for Maria Lourdes Afiuni, a famous former judge who was imprisoned, tortured, and raped after ruling against the government in 2009. Few would be as aware of Afiuni’s sad fate as her replacement — so it’s no surprise that Barreiros has historically towed the party line. A few years ago, Judge Barreiros freed the brother of a minister in Maduro’s cabinet who had been jailed for embezzlement.

The López verdict is a sign of the government’s clumsiness. Making him a martyr unifies the opposition and reinforces its main message: Basic freedoms are at stake, and only a complete change can bring about democracy in Venezuela. With legislative elections coming up in December (a date that was set only as a response to a hunger strike by López and other political prisoners) and the government looking increasingly likely to do poorly, energizing the opposition further is not likely to help.

Internationally, the ruling is expected to hurt Venezuela’s chances of reaching a rapprochement with the United States. Both the Maduro and Obama administrations have been inching toward some form of coexistence as of late, but the ruling is likely to poison the well for the near term. Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have expressed support for López. Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden have both met with his wife. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have already condemned the ruling.

In the secret video of López on trial, he claimed defiantly that he was a political prisoner. By throwing the book at him on trumped-up charges, the Venezuelan government and its lackeys in the courts have made certain the world knows he is right.

In the photo, a supporter of Leopoldo López reacts after learning of his guilty verdict in Caracas on Sept. 10, 2015.

Photo credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Sept. 11, 2015: A total of 43 people died in the wave of protests last year. A previous version of this article mistakenly said that 45 people died.

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