Politics and Prison in Venezuela
Student Protester's Saga Shines New Light on Chávez's Approach to Dissent

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."

Rivas's lawyers said the evidence against him was flimsy. A video made by a state television crew shows him shaking a police barricade during the protest and then telling a reporter that "we want to go to the Congress because we have a right." The tape was repeatedly shown on state television before Rivas was arrested, his lawyers said.

Rivas also became a target of Mario Silva, host of a state television show, "The Razor," in which Chávez foes are skewered. Silva aired photographs from Rivas's Facebook page and suggested that they demonstrated his culpability in generating unrest.

Among the photos was one of Rivas wearing a gas mask, which drew howls of laughter from Silva, and others of him with well-known opposition leaders. "Look, these are his friends!" Silva said. "This is in his Facebook. How horrible."

Alfredo Romero, who works at a Caracas law firm that represents Rivas and others detained by the government, said the steps taken against Rivas were meant to send a message to others in a budding student movement.

"The government is using Julio Rivas as an example to all the students: If you're a student and you go to a mass protest, you're going to go to prison," Romero said.

But Interior and Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said Rivas's release Monday, after 22 days in jail, debunked "countless opposition lies" alleging government repression. "Like never before, we say that our government, particularly President Hugo Chávez, respects human rights," he told state media.

Though now free, Rivas still faces charges. But Tuesday, a day after his release, he joined 50 university students on a hunger strike to protest the jailings.

Government critics singled out for prosecution have little right of redress because the Chávez administration controls the Supreme Court and the lower courts, said Carlos Ayala, a Venezuelan constitutional and human rights lawyer who is president of the Andean Commission of Jurists.

"Venezuelan justice has been subservient to political intervention," Ayala said.

Calls to Ortega, the attorney general, were not returned. But Chávez has frequently characterized criticism of Venezuela's human rights credentials -- as well as accusations that he controls the courts -- as the fabrications of CIA-supported coup plotters.

Some of those who have been prosecuted, though, say the government shows little mercy.

Five years ago, three Caracas police commissioners were convicted on charges that they ordered the killings of pro-government protesters in 2002.

"The government needed to blame someone, but it did not look for who was really responsible," said Ivan Simonovis, one of the commissioners, who is serving a 30-year term.

The Due Process of Law Foundation, a Washington group that promotes judicial reform, last year concluded after a six-month study that Venezuela had violated the police officials' rights. The foundation also raised questions about the independence of the judges.

Simonovis said the only way out now is if the opposition wins a majority in Congress next year and names what he calls independent judges to the judiciary.

"For the moment," Simonovis said, "the president controls it all, and uses it like a weapon to make criminals of the opposition."

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