Venezuelan police fired tear gas on marchers demanding that election officials start counting signatures for a vote to recall President Nicolas Maduro.
Caracas, Venezuela – Five months after the opposition took control of Venezuela’s National Assembly, opponents of President Nicolas Maduro’s views and policies continue to be harshly punished.
This week, after two years of relative quiet, street protests appeared to reignite in the capital and elsewhere. On Wednesday, hundreds of protesters demanding that election officials start counting signatures for a vote to recall President Maduro clashed in Caracas with police.
Officers threw tear gas containers at protesters, including high-profile opposition leader Henrique Capriles, and alarming reports were circulating in Venezuelan newsrooms regarding the brutal beating of a student in Zulia. He said he was held for hours by pro-government operatives and let go with the death threat to him and his family.
Meanwhile, nearly 100 self-proclaimed political prisoners are languishing in jail and 21 others remain under house arrest for charges such as criminal association, public incitement and property damage – all of them stemming from anti-government rallies turned violent.
According to the non-governmental organization Venezuela Awareness, 91 political leaders are currently jailed in different parts of the country.
The list of prisoners includes former mayors, governors and elected congressmen, a vast majority of them (86) arrested during Maduro’s first year in office in 2013.
The case of Leopoldo Lopez, a former mayor and leader of political party Voluntad Popular, is particularly dramatic. For more than a year now he has been held all by himself in a four-story building 28 miles south of Caracas.
“He is practically isolated,” said his lawyer, Juan Carlos Gutierrez, to Fox News Latino.
“Once a week he can make a 5-minute call and the rest of the time he is alone.”
Gutierrez said Lopez, 45 and father of two, is allowed to see his family three days a week, while he and his other lawyers can visit him Monday through Thursday for one hour each day.
The rest of the time Lopez remains disconnected. He can have in his cell just 10 books at a time, which are meticulously censored by prison guards.
“A few weeks ago they banned him a book about constitutional law and other books about history and letters from renowned political prisoners from around the world because of their political content,” Gutierrez said.
Other prominent figures being held, most without a trial, are one-time presidential candidate and former Zulia Governor Manuel Rosales; former Caracas Antonio Ledezma, who was arrested in February 2015 in his mayoral office; and three opposition congressmen elected in December of last year.
As days, weeks and month crawl by, their situation gets patently harder. Last month, one of the three jailed lawmakers, Gilberto Sojo, had to be hospitalized for seven days due to high blood pressure.
“All the tension and stress have created him health problems. He was arrested in November 2014 and his trial hasn’t even started”, Sojo’s attorney, Ramon Flores, told FNL.
Sojo and a dozen others are imprisoned in El Helicoide, a facility owned by Venezuela’s Intelligence Service, known as Sebin.
Back in April the National Assembly formally requested the release of the three opposition congressmen, demanding they take their roles, but the petition was denied.
But the opposition is not conceding.
When a few weeks ago the opposition carried on a nationwide initiative to collect the 195,721 signatures required to call a referendum and revoke president Maduro, the president of the National Assembly himself went to Lopez´s prison to get his signature.
Henry Ramos Allup waited for hours outside along with opposition leader Capriles, as prison officials consulted with superiors.
“They weren’t allowed in because they are not family members,” Gutierrez said. Lopez was able to sign later in the day when his mother came and handed him the petition.
The release of the nearly 100 political prisoners was one of the opposition’s main mantras during last year’s campaign ahead of the parliamentary election.
But the government has managed to stop all the initiatives the new Assembly has put forth, including an amnesty bill that was eventually declared unconstitutional by the openly Chavista Supreme Court.
“In the last few months we have seen an increase in the interference of the executive branch over the judicial branch to favor the government,” Gutierrez warned. “This complicates any possibility of justice and at this point it would be naïve to expect it will be done.”
Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.