In February of 2014, Leopoldo López ’93 was imprisoned on charges that were later reduced; last Thursday, he was sentenced to 13 years and nine months in a Venezuelan military prison, prompting international dismay and outrage.
Human Rights Watch called López’s case “a complete travesty of justice.” The United Nations Human Rights Council was “gravely alarmed” by the court’s decision.
“For sheer brazenness,” The Washington Post’s editorial board wrote, “nothing quite matches Venezuela’s prosecution of opposition leader Leopoldo López.”
López, a prominent leader of the opposition movement against the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro, was found guilty of public incitement during February 2014 protests in the capital city of Caracas. The unrest claimed the lives of 43 people on both sides of the conflict, the BBC reported. López has been held in the Ramo Verde military prison for the last 18 months on an arrest warrant for arson, murder, terrorism and conspiracy after turning himself in to the National Guard.
“This unjust sentence … makes a mockery of democratic values around the world,” Leonardo Alcivar ’95, a close friend and former classmate of López’s, said in an interview with the Collegian.
López, who majored in sociology at Kenyon, was a charismatic and forcefully opinionated student who made a “huge impression” on a college-aged Alcivar.
“He was a genuine intellectual who asked tough questions about democratic values and about the challenges that we face as a society, as a culture,” Alcivar said. “Those questions were so important because they emboldened me to ask them.”
Rob Gluck ’93 met López when they were first years living in Lewis Residence Hall; he called López a “provoker of conversation” at Kenyon.
“He was the one who would really work to put issues on the radar screen … that a lot of us in the student body weren’t necessarily thinking about,” Gluck said. “He sought out all points of view, people from all walks of life.”
López went on to earn a master’s degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He subsequently returned to his home country of Venezuela, where he became the leader of the Voluntad Popular (“People’s Will”) party and served as the mayor of Chacao, a municipality of Caracas, from 2000 to 2008. During this time López was a vocal critic of Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor.
“The Venezuela we live in today calls itself a democracy, but this is a façade,” López wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece in May. He said the country lacked free and fair elections and that its people were denied their constitutional rights to freedom of expression and to peacefully assemble. “Change can start with an end to the state-sponsored persecution of those who think differently from the Maduro regime,” López wrote.
Venezuela, home of the world’s largest oil reserves, is currently suffering from a severe economic crisis that has resulted in food shortages. Last year, the country’s inflation rate became the highest in the world, according to Forbes.
Critics have condemned López’s trial as politically motivated and as violating international law and human rights. Human Rights Watch asserted that Venezuela’s judicial process violated the right to due process, failed to provide evidence supporting the charges and did not allow the accused a proper defense.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Venezuela in 1978, affirms the right to a fair trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal and maintains that all persons are equal before the courts. Venezuela’s judicial system ceased being independent in 2004, when Chávez took control of the Supreme Court.
As a member of the United Nations (UN), Venezuela is also subject to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, although the treaty is non-binding. The day after López’s conviction was announced, the UN Human Rights Council proposed a resolution to suspend Venezuela’s membership.
The Maduro government maintains that López is trying to overthrow the president. Gluck said the government characterizes López as a right-wing radical who is attempting to work outside of the law.
“The thing that [López] talks about, works for are basic, fundamental human rights,” Gluck said. “There’s nothing radical whatsoever about that, but that’s a label that the government puts out there and they put it out there relentlessly enough.”
Neither Alcivar nor Gluck was surprised by the verdict in López’s case, but they hope the sentence will inspire the international community to act.
“I am more convinced than ever of the righteousness of our cause, which is none other than the liberation of an entire people who suffer the painful consequences of a model that has failed economically, politically and socially,” López wrote in a letter to the Venezuelan people after the conviction announcement. “Today they have Venezuela in chains but we have the strength, the endurance and the faith to make our country free again.”
Alex Pijanowski contributed reporting.