Opposition lawmakers run risk of prison time in Venezuela

By Hector Pereira

Caracas, Jul 3 (efe-epa).- Although they were elected to a seat in Venezuela’s Congress, five lawmakers who helped give the opposition a majority in the national legislature four and a half years ago now have spent a combined total of 1,250 days behind bars.

And they represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the aggression, persecution and political targeting of legislative opponents of leftist President Nicolas Maduro in that South American country.

Members of the unicameral National Assembly (AN) enjoy constitutionally guaranteed immunity from prosecution from the day of their election victory.

Even so, Venezuela’s court system and Chavismo – the leftist political movement that is named after late President Hugo Chavez, who ruled from 1999 until his death in 2013, and is now led by Maduro – have employed different mechanisms to arrest and politically destroy dozens of lawmakers since December 2015, when the opposition dealt the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) a decisive defeat in parliamentary elections.

Five legislators currently are behind bars, but a much longer list of lawmakers have been legally targeted. They include four who had been jailed previously, about 10 others who face arrest warrants, a score more who have been forced into exile and nearly 100 lawmakers who say they have been physically assaulted.

Of the 112 opposition lawmakers who won seats in the 2015 legislative elections (out of a possible total of 167 seats), all say they have faced some form of targeting or aggression.

Juan Requesens, 31, is the lawmaker who has spent the most time behind bars. He currently is being held at a detainment center in Caracas operated by the Bolivian Intelligence Service (Sebin), the same agency that arrested him without a warrant on Aug. 7, 2018, despite his parliamentary immunity.

That immunity was lifted the following day by the National Constituent Assembly, a plenipotentiary body that was founded in 2017 to override the AN and which is made up almost exclusively of Maduro allies.

Since then, Requesens has been the face of a group of inmates the opposition considers political prisoners. The United Nations and other international bodies have called for his release, but he remains behind bars on charges of taking part in a failed Aug. 4, 2018, assassination attempt against Maduro.

His attorney, Joel Garcia, told Efe that the lawmaker “has been unable to defend himself” at any stage of his legal proceedings, not even during the trial that formally began in November 2019 and has been suspended since March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This isn’t a trial. It’s an execution,” the lawyer said.

He added that his client has been tortured, referring to a video released by the government in which Requesens is heard confessing to a role in the assassination plot.

In the video, the former student leader at the Central University of Venezuela is seen to be covered in his own excrement and “under the effects of a drug” that prevented him from acting of his own will, Garcia said.

Two other opposition lawmakers, Renzo Prieto and Gilber Caro, have been jailed, released and jailed again since Maduro came to power in April 2013.

Prieto spent four years behind bars prior to 2018 and then returned to prison on March 10 of this year. His family members and attorneys lost contact with him three days later; since then, they have learned through some intermediaries that the lawmaker “is sleeping on the floor” of his Caracas cell.

Caro, for his part, is serving a fourth stint in prison, although the first of them was not politically related and dates to a time before he became a lawmaker. In his other three arrests between 2017 and 2019, the opposition says the lawmaker has been a victim of “forced disappearance” for weeks at a time.

The AN said it does not know where Caro is currently being held and what charges he faces and that the prisoner has been denied the right to be represented by an attorney of his choice.

In both cases, lawyers for the two defendants say their clients have been tortured by the authorities.

Antonio Geara and Ismael Leon also have been deprived of their liberty despite having parliamentary immunity under Venezuela’s constitution, although neither of them has been given the same attention in the media or by the opposition as Requesens, Prieto or Caro.

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