May 30, 2014

Leopoldo López Pre-Trial Hearing Monday, June 2

On Monday, June 2 a judge will determine whether Venezuelan opposition leader and prisoner of conscience, Leopoldo López, will stand trial for arson, damage to property, instigation and criminal association - crimes he did not commit.

This is the second time Leopoldo has prepared to stand before a judge since his incarceration earlier this year. His first pre-trial hearing scheduled for May 8 was canceled without notice or cause, and he was returned to a dark prison cell, where he marked his 100th day behind bars yesterday.

As we await the ruling of the pre-trial hearing, it is important to review the arbitrary and political nature of the case against Leopoldo. Below are the most egregious ways the Venezuelan government has systematically violated Leopoldo's rights:

1. Disqualified from seeking election

Leopoldo has long faced political persecution. Several years ago, when it became apparent that Leopoldo might pose an electoral challenge to then-President Hugo Chávez, the government announced that Leopoldo was to be disqualified from seeking election, citing vague administrative allegations that were never investigated nor heard in a court of law. When the Inter-American Court on Human Rights ultimately ruled that Leopoldo's political disqualification must be overturned, the Venezuelan government refused to comply.

2. Target of government threats

Throughout 2013, President Nicolás Maduro announced publicly that he had prepared a prison cell for Leopoldo. This clear abuse of power and violation of the rule of law provides further evidence that the Maduro regime intends to remove one of its most viable opponents from the political arena.

3. Presumed guilty before innocent and treated unequally before the law

President Maduro, the President of the National Assembly and other government officials have denied Leopoldo his constitutional rights to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and to be provided equality under Venezuelan law. They personally accused Leopoldo of orchestrating three deaths on February 12th and arrested him for these crimes without awaiting the outcome of an investigation.

4. Victim of irregular and biased court proceedings

The legal process is stacked against the defense. The court has named the Public Prosecutor and the criminal police (CICPC) as the victims in Leopoldo's case. This creates a conflict of interest and opportunities for bias because the Public Prosecutor oversees the investigation into Leopoldo's alleged crimes and the CICPC carries the investigation out.

The prosecution also sets the rules of permissible evidence. It directly employs about 95% of its witnesses, bringing into question their credibility. And unlike the defense, it has been allowed to submit roughly 92% of the evidence. Leopoldo's defense team has made countless requests to submit witness testimonies, videos and transcripts into evidence, yet almost all have been rejected.

5. Denied free speech

Leopoldo has been jailed for exercising his right to freedom of expression, thought and conscience - the most basic freedoms of society. He repeatedly called for non-violent resistance, a fact supported by videos of the events in question and witness testimony. However, the case against Leopoldo rests on the perverse assertion that his explicit calls for non-violence were subliminally intended to spur violence.

The government also has criminalized Leopoldo's calls for the removal of President Nicolás Maduro from office through constitutional means. It claims that to call for the replacement of a public authority this early in his tenure violates the constitution. However, this right to call for the removal of government officials is actually enshrined in the Constitution.

In fact, former President Hugo Chávez, relying on Article 50 of the Constitution of 1961, called for a similar Constitutional process in 1999, although his presidential term had just begun. This right is now contained in Article 22 of the Constitution, which means it can never be unconstitutional for Leopoldo to call for the replacement of public authorities as Chávez did in 1999.