The leader of Venezuela’s largest opposition party, Popular Will, has been found guilty of organizing protests against the socialist government. Leopoldo López has been condemned to serve 13 years and 9 months in prison.
The sentence, handed down by Judge Susana Barreiros, will be appealed by López’s legal team, but he will remain in the maximum security Ramo Verde military facility throughout the process. His exact sentence is 13 years, nine months, and seven days, after being found guilty of inciting violence and causing the deaths of protesters.
The incident that led to López’s arrest occurred in February 2014. López and the Popular Will party organized a peaceful protest against socialist President Nicolás Maduro, to which Maduro responded by immediately ordering the arrest of event organizers.
The calls for arrest followed a number of protests in which Bolivarian National Guard troops interrupted peaceful marches with gunfire and other physical attacks, leaving an initial total of 43 people dead. More would be killed by Venezuelan troops in the coming months protesting López’s arrest. Rather than blame Venezuelan military officials for such a disproportionate use of force, Maduro blamed López, charging him with murder, terrorism, and arson. The arson charge was eventually dropped.
López turned himself in on February 18, 2014, and has been in prison since.
López’s attorney, Juan Carlos Gutiérrez, argued that the court largely based its decision on tweets and Facebook posts López made that prove only his desire to organize a peaceful assembly against the government. The sentence, he told reporters, “does not contain a rational argument, or a probing analysis, much less any judicial analysis.” López’s legal team has protested that, in addition to the prosecution providing the judge with minimal evidence, the judge refused to listen to the testimony of 49 of the defense’s 50 witnesses.
López himself has issued a statement, asserting that “the people of Venezuela will take these handcuffs off of me,” and urging Popular Will members to pray for the family of Horacio Blanco, a man who had joined a protest calling for López’s freedom this week, but was killed when Bolivarian National Guard members assaulted him and induced a heart attack.
López’s wife, activist Lilian Tintori, told reporters that the sentence “proves that we live under a repressive, anti-democratic, corrupt, inefficient regime.”
The Popular Will party has asserted that it will continue to fight to regain control of Venezuela from Chavista autocrats who have imprisoned López. “Leopoldo has become the first person in Venezuelan history to be sentenced to prison just for his words,” said Popular Will legislator Lester Toledo.
Human rights NGOs agree, with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International among the most vocal in opposing the sentence. “In a country that lacks judicial independence, the fate of Lopez is in the hands of a provisional judge whose ruling is based on a trial in which the prosecution did not present basic evidence linking him to a crime, and Lopez was not allowed to properly defend himself,” said HRW Americas director José Miguel Vivanco.
“The charges against Leopoldo López were never adequately substantiated and the prison sentence against him has clear political motivations,” said Amnesty Americas director Erika Guevara-Rosas. “His only crime is to be a member of the opposition party in Venezuela.”
The U.S. State Department is “deeply concerned” by the sentence.
Tintori has organized a protest in her husband’s name in Caracas on Friday in the park where her husband was arrested in 2014.