Skip to main content

A supporter of Venezuelan politician Leopoldo Lopez cries after hearing his sentencing on Thursday.

MERIDITH KOHUT/NYT

The stiff sentence handed down to Venezuela's most prominent jailed opposition leader brought a cascade of criticism on Friday as President Nicolas Maduro's government continued along a combative path despite a crushing economic crisis, feuds with neighbouring countries and accusations of authoritarianism.

Leopoldo Lopez was convicted late Thursday of inciting violence during a wave of protests against the South American country's socialist administration in 2014, and was sentenced to the maximum punishment of nearly 14 years in military prison.

Critics at home immediately said the sentence should rally anti-government voters to the polls for crucial December elections. From abroad, the White House said it was "deeply saddened" by the ruling. Amnesty International, the European Union and United Nations human rights officials joined in condemnation.

Story continues below advertisement

"This case is a complete travesty of justice," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "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"

The court rejected all but two defence witnesses, both of whom ultimately declined to testify, while letting the prosecution call more than 100 during the closed-door sessions, according to Mr. Lopez's attorneys.

Mr. Lopez insists he called only for peaceful protests, and his backers blame armed government supporters for much of the bloodshed. Government officials said Mr. Lopez implicitly encouraged the violence.

The Maduro administration has grown increasingly combative in recent months as it grapples with a dysfunctional economy that has plummeted along with oil prices, contributing to the world's highest inflation and chronic shortages.

The embattled President has revived Venezuela's long-dormant claim to half of its eastern neighbour, Guyana, alarming even allies in the Caribbean. To the west, he's closed much of the border with Colombia, accusing the U.S. ally of nurturing smuggling gangs that he blames for causing widespread shortages by hauling cheap, subsidized gasoline and other products across the border.

The conviction of Mr. Lopez is likely to end, for now, a behind-the-scenes push by the United States to normalize relations with the country it declared a national security threat in March. The United States has not exchanged ambassadors with Venezuela since 2010, and it imposed sanctions on top officials in the spring for human rights abuses connected to last year's protests.

Venezuela reacted to that action, as it often does, by denouncing those sanctions as part of an attempt to topple the government.

Story continues below advertisement

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Mr. Lopez's wife last week and phoned Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez ahead of the verdict to express displeasure about the nature of the trial, which the defence said was marred by irregularities.

On Friday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Venezuela was using its justice system to attempt to silence critics. Venezuelan officials reacted furiously, accusing the U.S. of coup-mongering.

"The U.S. has erased the small steps taken toward regularizing bilateral relations with this insolent meddling," Ms. Rodriguez said on Twitter.

Meanwhile, conservative lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, began calling for a new round of sanctions in response to what the Republican presidential contender called a "show trial."

Venezuela's chronically divided opposition coalition has for the moment united around a call to campaign hard to win upcoming congressional elections so the legislature can pass an amnesty bill to free the Harvard-educated politician.

Mr. Lopez himself underscored this message in a letter his party said he wrote after the sentencing. "We cannot allow ourselves to be overcome, we cannot tire. We must rise again and again," he wrote, urging his followers to start mobilizing for the elections.

Story continues below advertisement

Unlike past political dogfights in Venezuela, when the government was firmly in control, the current tensions coincide with a deepening economic crisis that has shaken its core support among the poor.

While government supporters were mostly indifferent to Mr. Lopez's plight, his conviction gives the opposition a common cause to rally around as it prepares for the legislative elections less than 90 days away, said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst. "The opposition has to calm voices asking for street protest and disobedience, but almost everything indicates they will take the electoral path," he said.

Mr. Lopez's call for massive street protests two months after the socialist party swept regional elections in 2014 split the opposition. But his prominence as a symbol of government repression has grown during the 18 months he's been held at a military prison outside Caracas, with his approval ratings touching almost 50 per cent, while Mr. Maduro's languish below 30 per cent.

While many of Mr. Lopez's supporters never doubted he would be convicted, the stiff sentence came as a surprise to those who thought leniency would be shown in a bid to defuse tensions ahead of the elections.

Report an error
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter