The Americas

Venezuelan protesters now face military justice as unrest takes a mounting toll

Since the wave of protests against President Nicolas Maduro began a month and a half ago, something unprecedented and unconstitutional has started to take place in Venezuela: Hundreds of civilians have been brought to military justice in compliance to the new "Plan Zamora," an operative launched by the government to preempt a coup.

According to justice records, since the beginning of April 275 civilians have been prosecuted in military courts in four different states, including the capital. Of those, 159 were imprisoned and remain behind bars.

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Most of them were charged with attacking an officer and “association with intent of rebellion." In the state of Zulia, 14 people were brought before military justice for destroying a statue of late President Hugo Chavez.

The practice of trying civilians in military courts, banned by the Venezuelan constitution, comes after longtime chavista Attorney General Luisa Ortega broke ranks with the government and publicly condemned the “arbitrary” arrests of demonstrators, among other recent decisions deemed anti-constitutional.

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"The government is resorting to military justice because it realized the AG’s office wasn't going to lend itself to political persecution,” Gonzalo Himiob, director of the NGO Venezuelan Penal Forum told Fox News. 

He added that with the military trials the government is trying to suggest a confrontation between two armed sides.

“That is false,” he said. “Those who are armed are the military, the police and the paramilitary groups."

The opposition says the new trend is a "persecution" maneuver to cool protests against Maduro, which in the last six weeks has left 38 dead and more than 800 injured.

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Despite the deaths, opposition leaders continue to call for daily street protests to reject Maduro's intentions to elect a Constituent Assembly that would to rewrite the Constitution. They say such assembly would be "fraudulent" and only seeks to keep Chavismo in power.

"The only thing that Maduro is looking for is to not call for any more elections. That Constituent Assembly is a fraud and we are not going to participate," said opposition leader Henrique Capriles to Fox News.

The opposition–led Congress passed resolution last week calling military trials “a violation of human rights" and Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro has said that what is happening in Venezuela is "a practice of dictatorships."

But so far all condemnation has fell on deaf ears, as Chavismo remains deeply encroached in virtually all of the nation’s institutions.

Maduro, whose government is rejected by seven out of 10 Venezuelans according to most surveys, justifies the use of military trials saying the demonstrations have resulted in "terrorist acts" and come up to and "armed insurgency" seeking to overthrow him.

"Venezuela is the victim of a national and international ambush of fascism," he said again last week.

Maduro, 54, who narrowly won election to replace Chavez in 2013, says he is the victim of an international right-wing conspiracy that has already brought down leftist governments in Brazil, Argentina and Peru in recent years.

As international pressure on him grows, the European Union on Monday became the latest to call for elections in its most outspoken statement yet on the Venezuela crisis.

Alex Vasquez is a freelance reporter living in Caracas, Venezuela.