The stiff sentence handed down to Venezuela's most prominent jailed opposition leader brought a cascade of criticism, as the government of President Nicolas Maduro continued along a combative path.
Caracas – Just hours after being sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison, Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez called for a massive event on Sept. 19 to protest against his conviction and President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
He said the nationwide rally will kick off a big organizational effort focused on December’s legislative elections.
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 13 years and 9 months.
On Friday, close to 100 of Lopez’s supporters gathered at Jose Marti´s square, in eastern Caracas, to decry the harsh sentence. His wife, Lilian Tintori, read a letter penned by Lopez.
“I have been convicted by an elite that has demonstrated openly and brazenly that there is no level of dishonesty it won’t stoop to in order to preserve its power and privileges,” Lopez wrote in Spanish. “But even now I do not regret in the least the decision I took,” he added. “I am at peace, for a simple and powerful reason: great causes deserve great sacrifices.”
The leaders of Voluntad Popular, Lopez's political party, were joined at the rally by other opposition organizations, like Primero Justicia (First Justice) and Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Time).
Tintori told the chanting crowd that after next week’s rally, they will travel around the country in the name of Lopez and alongside the opposition candidates.
“On Sept. 19 we will start the road that will open the door to political change in Venezuela,” she said.
Gabriela Arellano, one of leaders of Voluntad Popular, told FNL she expects a widespread victory in December's elections. She said that with a majority in the National Assembly they plan to pass an amnesty law that will release the 68 political prisoners currently held in Venezuela.
“Yesterday we heard the government's sentence. On Dec. 6th [Election Day] the people will announce theirs,” she said.
López, former mayor of Chacao, a wealthy section of Caracas, was found guilty of inciting violence, conspiracy, and damaging public property.
Three students were also sentenced on Thursday night. Christian Holdack, Ángel González and Damián Martín got long-term probation sentences and will have to appear in court every 8 days.
Lopez will continue to serve his time in Ramo Verde prison, a military complex in the state of Miranda, about an hour drive from Caracas.
Tintori had called the Friday rally for noon but, she said, she got delayed by two-and-a-half hours because military personnel blocked her exit at Ramo Verde, where she was paying a visit to her husband.
“They knew I was coming to read this letter, so they stopped me for more than two hours,” Tintori said.
Jesús Torrealba, secretary of the Democratic Unity Roundtable, a coalition of opposition political parties, took part in Friday event and highlighted the need for peace.
“The only side interested in bringing violence is the government, [in order] to have an excuse to suspend the legislatives election, which according to every opinion poll they are losing,” Torrealba said to FNL.
He said that at this time they are more united than ever before.
"The government thought that this decision would divide the opposition again, but they were wrong. Now we are closer than ever, more organized than ever to win the election," Torrealba said.
Political analysts say December’s election seems the only viable way for the opposition to reduce the government’s power and release the imprisoned political leaders.
Juan Carlos Gutiérrez, Lopez´s lawyer, said his trial was tainted. He said Judge Susana Barreiros didn’t let them present the evidence that proves the opposition leader’s innocence.
“The judge’s decision was based in very weak elements. The judge has 10 days to make the sentence public and after that we will appeal, probably before October,” he said to FNL. “But we all know that in Venezuela there is an absence of justice.”
He said that if the appeal does not proceed, the case will go to Venezuela’s Supreme Court and international bodies, such as Inter-American Court of Human Rights, if needed.
Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.