IACHR

Press Release

IACHR Voices Concern over Ruling against Leopoldo López in Venezuela

September 25, 2015

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María Isabel Rivero
IACHR Press and Communication Director
Tel: +1 (202) 370-9001
mrivero@oas.org

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is concerned about the judgment issued on September 10, 2015 against Leopoldo López, leader of the opposition party Voluntad Popular, finding him guilty of crimes related to exercising freedom of expression and his political rights; and in view of complaints received, alleging absence of due process guarantees in the investigation and trial mounted against him, as noted in its Release No. 57/15. It is also important to note that Precautionary Measure 335/14 was issued by the IACHR on April 20, 2015 in his favor Leopoldo López and Daniel Ceballos, another Voluntad Popular leader, with respect to the conditions under which they were being detained.

It is a matter of public knowledge that the ruling found Leopoldo López guilty of public incitement, property damage, arson, and conspiracy to commit a crime, and slapped him with a prison term of more than 13 years and 9 months. Convicted along with Leopoldo López were students Christian Holdack, to just over 10 years and 6 months in prison, for arson and damage, public incitement, and conspiracy; and Demian Martín García and Angel de Jesús González, to 4 years and 6 months in prison, for the crime of public incitement.

According to media reports, the case against Leopoldo López was triggered by a demonstration he called for, in February 2014, against the government of the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro.  Leopoldo López was accused of delivering speeches inciting his followers to commit acts of violence.  After a warrant was issued for his arrest, Leopoldo López turned himself in to the authorities, on February 18, 2014, and has been in detention ever since, in solitary confinement at a military prison, the National Center for Military Defendants (CENAPROMIL), also known as "Green Branch."

The IACHR granted the aforementioned precautionary measure after determining that prolonged isolation and allegations of the beneficiaries being abused could deal a significant blow to  Leopoldo López's and Daniel Ceballos' right to life and to personal, physical, and psychological safety; and asked the State to take the necessary steps to protect their life and personal safety, ensure that prison conditions meet international standards; and agree on measures to be adopted in conjunction with the beneficiaries and their attorneys.

According to published reports, the trial to which Leopoldo López was subjected was held in Caracas Metropolitan Area Trial Court 28, before provisional judge Susana Barreiros,  this month, behind closed doors; and with a "marathon" 71 hearings held within a few days.  According to the defense for Leopoldo López, the only witnesses admitted by the judge were the ones presented by the prosecution.

On numerous occasions, the IACHR has insisted that justice operators play a key role in guaranteeing justice and respect for rights and freedoms under a democratic system and in promoting respect the right of access to justice for people who have been victims of human rights violations; and in ensuring respect for due process for individuals being tried.  The right to due process is vital to any criminal proceeding as it allows defendants to prepare and properly defend themselves against the charges laid against them. It also ensures effective protection of other human rights.

In that connection, the IACHR wishes to remind the Venezuelan State that the Judiciary and judges alike should be afforded sufficient guarantees of independence in the administration of justice – such as job security, freedom to carry out their duties, security, and protection – so as not to be subjected to abuse or unreasonable restrictions by other branches or institutions of Government.  Accordingly, the IACHR wishes to reiterate that due process and judicial independence are both indispensable judicial guarantees, which are put to the test when political opponents are on trial, as in this case.

Furthermore, this trial has to do with the right of individuals to freedom of expression and to peaceful protest. As regards these incidents, and along the lines of its Release No. 15/15, the Commission wishes to reiterate that opposition voices are essential to a democratic society and, without them, there can be no agreement that caters the different prevailing perspectives in society. Freedom of thought and expression is protected under Article IV of the Declaration and under Article 13 of the American Convention and, while not an absolute right, restrictions thereon must be exceptional in nature and cannot limit it, beyond what is strictly necessary, from being fully exercised. The IACHR’s Office of Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression has argued that the right to protest includes the right to choose a cause and its purpose; and nonviolent calls for a change of state policy, or even for a change of government itself, is part of specially-protected speech. The Commission would like to reiterate that responsibility for acts of violence during a protest must be ascribed individually.

Abusing vague and ambiguous offenses – to allow those who participate in or call for a demonstration to be held responsible – has a chilling effect on the exercise of the right to protest, and is contrary to democratic principles.

The IACHR calls on the State to publish the judgments issued against Leopoldo López and the students; and reiterates its call for the State to respect judicial guarantees and judicial protection in the proceedings against these individuals.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 107/15