“Leopoldo López will remain in prison because he is a murderer,” Diosdado Cabello, the second most powerful socialist in Venezuela, said amid laughs on his television show on Saturday, referring to an opposition leader who counted his 1,000th day in prison on Sunday.
Leopoldo López, the leader of the Popular Will center-left opposition party, was arrested in February 2014 on charges of “terrorism” for having organized a peaceful rally against socialist President Nicolás Maduro. Since then, the National Assembly has declared Maduro a dictator, calling him to step down on charges of “abandonment” for his negligent treatment of the decaying Venezuelan economy and use of state force to oppress dissidents. The National Assembly cannot impeach Maduro because his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, ensured that the constitution passed under his rule did not have an impeachment proceeding available to the legislature.
The National Assembly nonetheless remains in control of the opposition since trouncing the Socialist United Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in last year’s general elections. Cabello, repeatedly accused of heading one of South America’s most lucrative cocaine empires, lost his position as president of the National Assembly but remains an influential television host and Socialist leader.
“You have to be really dumb to think that they are going to scare the people,” Cabello bellowed on his program, referring to the anti-socialist opposition’s attempt to negotiate with his government. The National Assembly’s leadership had demanded the liberation of political prisoners as a prerequisite to negotiations. Cabello immediately dismissed that possibility, labeling the nation’s most high-profile political prisoner, López, a “murderer.”
By all accounts, López’s imprisonment violates international human rights norms. As the NGO Human Rights Watch noted this week, on the occasion of his 1000th day in prison, the government has subjected López to innumerable abuses, from throwing human excrement into his solitary confinement cell to throwing away his Bible. “They’ve censored poetry and history books, any material written in English, and publications ranging from The Economist to a magazine on surfing,” the organization notes, and he has not been able to speak to his family for three weeks.
“In a separate cell in his building, López is allowed to watch TV for a few hours a day, on a set that offers only the overwhelmingly pro-government open-air channels or movies selected by guards,” the group notes. The situation seems similar to the imprisonment of American citizen Kenneth Bae in North Korea, who wrote in his book that he grew to hate television because of the hours of mandated Kim Il-sung propaganda in prison.
Human Rights Watch asserts that López’s 14-year sentence was the product of “fabricated charges,” confirmed by the prosecutor responsible for putting him behind bars. “Leopoldo López is innocent,” Franklin Nieves, the lead prosecutor in his case, told reporters after defecting to Miami in October 2015. Calling the charges “100 percent false,” Nieves argued that López would remain imprisoned nonetheless because “prosecutors and judges fear that if anyone dissents from carrying out an order, he will be detained, or a criminal case will be invented against him and he will be jailed.”