Venezuelan Opposition Leader Was Framed, Says Former Prosecutor

After fleeing Venezuela, Franklin Nieves comes clean: Leopoldo López's trial, he says, was "a sham."

lopez youtube video crop
lopez youtube video crop

Dictatorships usually do their dirty work in secret. It’s rare that the people who live under them -- much less outsiders -- get to witness the system’s inner workings. Venezuela is different. Every week a new scandal seems to erupt, and each one gives us a fresh “peek under the hood.” The sad part is that the tawdry revelations -- such as those by top prosecutor Franklin Nieves a few days ago -- rarely lead to consequences.

During his stint in Venezuelan law enforcement, Nieves worked on several high-profile political cases. None of them, though, was bigger than the one against Leopoldo López, the opposition leader who was accused by the government of inciting violence, vandalism of government buildings, and conspiracy.

Last September, López was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Nieves, one of two lead prosecutors in the trial, now says it was all “a sham.” In a video he posted on YouTube from the United States, Nieves said he fled with his family because of the “pressure” he felt at having to continuously violate López’s rights. Then, in an extended interview with the Wall Street Journal, he apologized to López’s family, declaring the jailed man to be “innocent” while tearfully admitting that his human rights had been “violated.” López, he said, “was not able to call forth any witnesses or evidence” in his own defense during his trial.

Dictatorships usually do their dirty work in secret. It’s rare that the people who live under them — much less outsiders — get to witness the system’s inner workings. Venezuela is different. Every week a new scandal seems to erupt, and each one gives us a fresh “peek under the hood.” The sad part is that the tawdry revelations — such as those by top prosecutor Franklin Nieves a few days ago — rarely lead to consequences.

During his stint in Venezuelan law enforcement, Nieves worked on several high-profile political cases. None of them, though, was bigger than the one against Leopoldo López, the opposition leader who was accused by the government of inciting violence, vandalism of government buildings, and conspiracy.

Last September, López was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Nieves, one of two lead prosecutors in the trial, now says it was all “a sham.” In a video he posted on YouTube from the United States, Nieves said he fled with his family because of the “pressure” he felt at having to continuously violate López’s rights. Then, in an extended interview with the Wall Street Journal, he apologized to López’s family, declaring the jailed man to be “innocent” while tearfully admitting that his human rights had been “violated.” López, he said, “was not able to call forth any witnesses or evidence” in his own defense during his trial.

In an interview a few days later, Nieves went on to say that President Nicolás Maduro had already decided to jail López before the wave of popular protests began in February 2014. Maduro was convinced that López was stirring people up against his rule, and Nieves was picked to be the man who would frame and prosecute him. Nieves confessed to coercing false witnesses to testify in the prosecution’s favor. He also admitted that the fire in the prosecution’s office for which López was charged with “vandalism” was staged, started by people linked with his office.

The ruling that sent López back to Ramo Verde prison makes it clear that the trial was a sham. The main rationale the court cited for putting López in jail was that, by using Twitter to call for protests, he was inciting his supporters to violence and questioning the legitimacy of the regime. In a particularly nonsensical section of the ruling, the judge in the case scolded López for quoting ex-President Rómulo Betancourt. Betancourt’s name, the judge said, was “code” that was calling on Maduro’s opponents to take up arms.

Independent observers have been warning for years that Venezuela’s justice system is rotten to the core. Many judges and prosecutors have temporary assignments, meaning that they enjoy very little independence from their politically motivated bosses. Failing to toe the line can have serious consequences. One of the country’s most notorious cases of human rights abuse involved a judge who failed to rule in Hugo Chávez’s favor and was subsequently jailed, tortured, and raped.

In his first video from the United States, Nieves warned his loved ones that his reputation would soon be smeared. The government has hastened to oblige him. Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega declared that her former colleague had been fired for “abandoning his duties,” and that Nieves “was being pressured by foreign governments” to speak out against Venezuela. Nieves, in turn, claims that Ortega gets her marching orders from Maduro and Diosdado Cabello, the country’s number two strongman. Meanwhile, prompted by the latest revelations, López’s family is calling for his release.

It is tempting to think that this scandal will spur urgently needed reforms. Yet such hopes are unfounded. Venezuela is a country where revelations about bad governance have little effect, because the public sphere barely exists. Since the government controls newsprint and almost all broadcast media, critical information rarely reaches the non-informed voter.

Given tight state control of the judiciary, the military, and much of the private business sector, critical outsiders have little power to change the government’s behavior. Venezuela has experienced similar revelations about the court system before, even from Hugo Chávez’s own bodyguard. Nothing has ever come of them.

Nieves says that López’s young daughter goes to the same school as his own, and that seeing her every morning was what ultimately convinced him to flee and speak his truth. Whether his change of heart will redeem him in the eyes of Venezuelans remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the victim of his elaborate hoax remains behind bars, and will probably stay there until Maduro leaves the government — regardless of how many consciences are suddenly awakened.

The photo is taken from a YouTube video in which Franklin Nieves explains why he fled Venezuela and admits that the trial of Leopoldo López was politically motivated.

Photo credit: YouTube video posted by Lapatilla Patillavideo

Juan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidadde los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution. Twitter: @juannagel

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