Politics and Prison in Venezuela

Julio Cesar Rivas, 22, spent about three weeks in jail after taking part in a protest. He was released last Monday and launched a hunger strike to protest jailings of dissenters.
Julio Cesar Rivas, 22, spent about three weeks in jail after taking part in a protest. He was released last Monday and launched a hunger strike to protest jailings of dissenters. (By Juan Forero -- The Washington Post)
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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 5, 2009

CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chávez's government says Julio Cesar Rivas is a violent militant intent on fomenting civil war.

Rivas's supporters say the 22-year-old university student is just one of many Venezuelans jailed for challenging a populist government that they contend is increasingly intolerant of dissent.

As the Chávez government approaches 11 years in power, many of its most prominent opponents are in exile in foreign countries or under criminal investigation here.

But human rights and legal policy groups say that even more worrisome is the growing number of government foes in jail for what they allege are politically motivated reasons. There are more than 40 political prisoners in Venezuela, and 2,000 Chávez opponents are under investigation, the groups and human rights lawyers say.

"The government tries to defend itself by saying it has politicians who are prisoners," said Teodoro Petkoff, a newspaper editor critical of Chávez. "But however you label them, they are people who are prisoners for political reasons."

Chávez administration officials contend that politics is not a motivating factor in the arrests and that the prisoners, political opponents or not, violated criminal code.

The arrests come in a year in which the number of anti-government protests has grown dramatically in Caracas, the capital, and other major cities. In the first eight months of this year, 2,079 demonstrations took place, up from 1,602 in 2008, according to a recent study by Provea, a human rights organization, and Public Space, a policy group that monitors free speech issues. Nearly 500 people were hurt and 440 were detained, the study said.

Venezuela's chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega, warned at the end of August that such demonstrations were "in effect, criminal civil rebellion." She said protesters could be charged with crimes carrying prison terms of up to 24 years.

"People who disturb order and the peace to create instability of institutions, to destabilize the government or attack the democratic system, we are going to charge and try them," she told reporters.

Soon after that, Rivas learned how swift Venezuelan justice could be.

On Sept. 7, two weeks after participating in a demonstration, Rivas was arrested at his home. The main charge against him: inciting civil war.

"I didn't commit any crime. I am a young student who is not a coup plotter," he said in an interview. "I am not a CIA agent as they say I am."


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