POLITICS

Venezuela opposition leader Leopoldo López's prison sentence spurs calls for U.S. sanctions

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (L) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R), both of Florida, want the Obama administration to take a harsher stance towards Venezuela following the jailing of opposition leader Leopoldo López.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (L) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R), both of Florida, want the Obama administration to take a harsher stance towards Venezuela following the jailing of opposition leader Leopoldo López.  (Getty Images)

The sentencing of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López to nearly 14 years in prison for his involvement in the 2014 demonstrations against the regime of President Nicolás Maduro has elicited a host of negative responses from U.S. lawmakers critical to the government in Caracas.

Lawmakers from Florida, the state with the largest number of Venezuelan-American's in the U.S., have called for new sanctions to be leveled against the judges, prosecutors and prison officials involved in what Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called a "politically-motivated sentencing."

"The malicious use of the judicial system as an instrument to punish and persecute dissent is only part of the problem with Maduro's brutal regime that [insists] on ruling Venezuela with an iron fist," she added. "I call on all responsible nations to condemn this miscarriage of justice and call for Leopoldo's immediate, unconditional release."

López – the 44-year-old, Harvard-educated former mayor of a wealthy Caracas district – has spent the past year and a half in a military prison outside the capital city, where he'll complete his sentence. 

During his time in prison, he has been the focal point of international pressure on Maduro for greater civil liberty. Despite only family being allowed to visit, he has managed to release several videos from behind bars.

In May, in a recording taped in his cell, López called for the largest rally Venezuela has seen since the wave of anti-government protests in 2014 that led to his jailing. In June, he staged a 30-day hunger strike to demand the government schedule congressional elections.

In part because of the Venezuelan crackdown on anti-Maduro demonstrators, the Obama administration issued an executive order freezing the assets of seven Venezuelan officials in the U.S. and denying them visas.

The officials – including the former head of the country's intelligence service and the leader of Venezuela's Bolivarian National Police – are deemed responsible for the crack down on anti-government protesters in clashes between the two sides that left more than 40 people dead and led to the jailing of a number of opposition political figures including López.

On Friday, Florida senator and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio called his trial "a sham" and called on the Obama administration to act more aggressively toward the Maduro regime.

"The Venezuelan regime is robbing Leopoldo of his freedom, his wife of a husband, his kids of a father and the Venezuelan people of a leader committed to their democratic aspirations," he said in a statement. "He deserves to be freed immediately and unconditionally."

Rubio added, "The Obama administration has been flirting with rapprochement with the Venezuelan regime, and this decision should make clear it's a foolish notion. The Obama administration has been moving too slowly on applying sanctions on human-rights violators in Venezuela, and now is the time to fully implement the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014."

Rubio was the only presidential candidate in either party to comment on the jailing of López.

The opposition leader's sentencing came only a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Venezuela's foreign minister, Delcy Rodríguez, as part of the effort to repair the relationship between the two countries.

In a phone call, Kerry expressed concern about individuals jailed for political reasons in Venezuela, including López, according to Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America.

Last week, Kerry met with López's wife, Lilian Tintori, in Washington, D.C.

Kerry also discussed with Rodríguez the need to find a quick resolution to Venezuela's two week-old border dispute with Colombia in light of the humanitarian situation that's developing there.

Relations reached a low point this year when Maduro accused the U.S. of working to overthrow him, and the U.S. said his government engages in undemocratic practices.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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