UN Human Rights Bodies Urge Venezuela to Release Opposition Leader Leopoldo Lopez, Ensure Protesters Are Not Arbitrarily Detained or Prosecuted

Students from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello protesting in 2009<br />  Credit: René Reinsberg
Students from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello protesting in 2009
Credit: René Reinsberg

On Monday, United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein voiced concern over the detention of a Venezuelan opposition leader, Leopoldo López, and more than 69 others who were involved in months-long public protests that began in February 2014 in response to the country’s ailing economy, high rate of violence, and sharp political divisions. “The prolonged and arbitrary detention of political opponents and protesters in Venezuela is causing more and more concern internationally … It is only exacerbating the tensions in the country,” High Commissioner Al Hussein stated. [OHCHR Press Release]

The response of President Nicolás Maduro’s government to the mass protests has been severe. At least 3,300 individuals have been detained for brief periods between February and June. [Foro Penal] Of these, approximately 1,700 are facing charges. [NYT] The Office of the High Commissioner has received reports of more than 150 cases of ill-treatment during detention, including torture. The number of deaths totals at least 43, nine of whom were members of the security forces and one who was a public prosecutor. [OHCHR Press Release]

The high number of arrests made and the treatment of detainees have sparked alarm internationally. Among others, the Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza has called for the release of those imprisoned for their participation in the protests. [Americas Quarterly] The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights further noted Mr. López’s arrest and stated that Venezuela’s use of its punitive power to criminalize peaceful social protest and to prosecute critics and political dissidents was “deeply disturbing.” It urged the State to “promote a process of dialogue to find a solution in the context of a democratic society and with full respect for human rights.” [IACHR Press Release]

Response by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention

On February 27, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention sent a communication to the Venezuelan government asking for its response to Mr. López’s claims that his rights to personal liberty and the exercise of “political rights in a legitimate form” were being violated. The government defended its treatment of Mr. López by stating that he “personally incited hatred and violence among the inhabitants, creating a situation of tension and aggression.” The State denied that any arbitrary arrests had taken place and argued that those who had been arrested had partaken in violent acts and posed a threat to “the rights of personal integrity, free transit, public and private property, and a healthy environment.” Opinions adopted by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention at its seventieth session, August 25-29, 2014, UN Doc. A/HRC/WGAD/2014/26, 26 August 2014, paras. 21, 33-34 (Opinion No. 26/2014).

In August, the Working Group issued Opinion No. 26/2014, in which it criticized the State’s detention of Mr. López as politically motivated and not sufficiently justified by the accusations against him. The Working Group acknowledged that Mr. López’s arrest was made without an order from a judicial authority, his detention continued over six months, and he encountered obstacles to communicating with his defense lawyers. All of these factors affected Mr. López’s “right to a fair and impartial trial, the presumption of innocence, and due process.” Id. at para. 59.

For these reasons, the Working Group held:

[T]he deprivation of Mr. Leopoldo López liberty, with the objective of restricting his political rights and by his being detained in a military prison, as well as his exercising his rights to freedom of thought and opinion, expression, association and politics … is arbitrary under Category II of the Group’s methods of work.

Id. at para. 58.

Having concluded that the detention of Mr. López was arbitrary, the Working Group asked the government to immediately free him and make reparations for his detention. Id. at para. 60.

The Working Group also found that the detention of Daniel Ceballos, former mayor of San Cristobal, was arbitrary. [OHCHR Press Release]

Response by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

On October 20, High Commissioner Al Hussein urged the government of Venezuela to ensure that all trials conform to the international standards relating to due process. He also met with Mr. López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, to discuss the situation of the detainees and their families.

In addition to issuing his own statement urging Venezuela to release the arbitrarily detained protestors and politicians, High Commissioner Al Hussein also called on the government to respond to the Working Group’s recommendations and to release Mr. López and Mr. Ceballos, as well as anyone else detained for exercising their right to free expression and peaceful protest.

High Commissioner Al Hussein affirmed his commitment to seeing the arbitrary detentions come to an end. “My office is extremely concerned about the current situation, and we will continue to monitor it very closely,” he said. [OHCHR Press Release]

The Arrest, and Trial of Leopoldo López

Forty-three-year-old Leopoldo Lόpez became mayor of the Chacao District of Caracas in 2000 and held that office until 2008, when he was prevented from further participating in regional elections due to sanctions issued by the Comptroller General of the Republic. That year, he filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights alleging violations of his rights under the American Convention on Human Rights. In 2010, the Inter-American Commission held that the political sanctions against Mr. López had violated his rights under the American Convention and referred the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. I/A Court H.R., Case of López Mendoza v. Venezuela. Merits, Reparations, and Costs. Judgment of September 1, 2011. Series C No. 233, paras. 1-2.

In September 2011, the Inter-American Court held that Venezuela had violated articles 1(1) (obligation to respect rights), 2 (domestic legal effects), 8(1) (right to a fair trial), 23(1)(b) and 23(2) (right to participate in government), and 25(1) (right to judicial protection). Id. at paras. 108-09, 149, 185, 206, 249(1)-(4). The Court ordered a series of reparative measures, including:

  • assurance that Mr. López would not be disqualified from running in future elections;
  • withdrawal of the two resolutions that disqualified Mr. López from public office; and
  • payment of USD 12,000.00 to Mr. López’s representatives for costs and expenses.

Id. at “And Decides,” paras. 1-6.

Mr. López subsequently resumed his political career and founded a new political party, Voluntad Popular (Popular Will). As the party’s National Coordinator, Mr. López is considered a major leader of the opposition movement.

In February 2014, he called for and participated in demonstrations aimed at unseating President Maduro. [Guardian] In the ensuing protests, several dozen people were killed and the clashes disrupted life in several Venezuelan cities. [Washington Post]

Following the protests, President Maduro ordered Mr. López’s arrest on charges of conspiracy, inciting violence, arson, and damage to property. [Media Release] The Venezuelan government claims that Mr. López used “subliminal messaging” to persuade his supporters to engage in violent behavior. [NYT] On February 18, Mr. López surrendered himself to authorities. Currently, he is being held in the Centro Nacional de Procesados Militares (Ramo Verde) military prison in Miranda state. [CBS]

Mr. López is being tried along with four student activists; fellow Voluntad Popular leader, Mr. Caballos, has already been sentenced to one year in prison for failing to end the protests in San Cristobal. [WSJ] Mr. López’s trial began in July 2014 and is ongoing; the next hearing is scheduled for October 28, according to Lόpez’s Twitter account.

The impartiality of the national court trying Mr. López has been called into question. Trial Judge Susana Barrieros, for example, was criticized for admitting 108 of the government’s witnesses, while rejecting all but one of Mr. López’s 65 defense witnesses. [Washington Post] The trial has been described as “like something out of Kafka … The state doesn’t have to provide any real evidence that López is guilty, and the defense is not allowed to provide evidence that he is innocent.” If convicted, he faces 12 years’ imprisonment. [WSJ]

About the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention

The Working Group on arbitrary detention is one of the thematic special procedures overseen by the UN Human Rights Council. It is composed of five experts who investigate possible cases of arbitrary detention, including by speaking with governments through communications and urgent appeals. The five current members of the Working Group are from Benin, Mexico, Norway, South Korea, and Ukraine.

For more information, visit the UN Special Procedures and the Working Group on arbitrary detention pages of IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.