Venezuelan activists' convictions, court moves alarm advocates as elections loom

By Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) - Before they were arrested and sentenced to 16 years in prison on conspiracy charges, the six Venezuelan activists marched peacefully to call for better salaries for teachers, according to their families and lawyers.

Some had taken part in non-violent protests for years, despite long-running and internationally-condemned efforts by President Nicolas Maduro's government to tamp down dissent in the country, which is under U.S. sanctions and grappling with an economic and social crisis.

The August conviction of the men - who deny prosecutors' accusation they planned to assault a military weapons site and attack an event traditionally attended by Maduro - is among several recent legal moves seen by opponents and civil rights groups as a specific effort to scare potential activists as the opposition prepares for a presidential contest next year.

Twelve sources - among them lawyers, family members and advocacy groups, including many who have participated in years of litigation on behalf of protesters and opposition figures - said events over the last several months point to a pattern of increasing repression.

"The government is seeking specifically to quiet protest: don't go out to the streets, if you do and if you protest and if you complain ... they'll jail you and sentence you to 16 years," said Yorbelis Oropeza, a teacher and the wife of Alcides Bracho, a former chemistry teacher and painter and one of the six convicted men.

Neither the Supreme Justice Tribunal nor the Executive Direction of the Judiciary, which oversees Venezuela's judicial system, responded to requests for comment about various cases.

The attorney general's office and justice ministry also did not respond to requests for comment.

The Maduro government and Venezuela's judiciary have long been criticized by non-governmental groups and the United Nations for either targeting or failing to protect those perceived as government adversaries.

In a statement, two U.N. experts said the long prison terms handed down to the six activists amounted to "an attempt to take civil society actors out of circulation and damage civic space in Venezuela."

"The harsh sentencing serves as a warning to others who might engage in dissent," wrote the two special rapporteurs, Fionnuala Ni Aolain and Clement Nyaletsossi Voulue.

The latest moves by Venezuelan authorities demand a coordinated response from other countries, advocates said.

"It's probable that if the international community doesn't react in an effective and multilateral way, that repression will rise before the elections," said Juan Pappier of Human Rights Watch.


While reliable statistics on arrest rates, convictions and sentences are hard to come by in Venezuela, Foro Penal, an NGO that offers pro bono legal services, says 288 people are in jail for political reasons.

"It's a tool of control ... which keeps people suppressed by fear," said Gonzalo Himiob, vice-president of the group.

Maduro, who succeeded late socialist leader Hugo Chavez in 2013, has withstood the pressure of U.S. sanctions in part through the support of allies in Russia and China. He is enjoying renewed relations with neighbors Colombia and Brazil and some loosened U.S. restrictions. He has long accused Venezuela's opposition of seeking to spread chaos.

"They are sowing hate, division, because the sectors of the far right want once again to take the country to protests, to division, to hate," Maduro said on state television in late August. "We cannot allow fascism or support for a coup to once again fill the streets with violence."

Maduro is widely expected to run in the election, which the government has not yet scheduled.

Among those defended by Foro Penal is Javier Tarazona, 41, director of FundaRedes, which tracks alleged abuses by Colombian armed groups and the Venezuelan military along the countries' border. Tarazona was arrested in July 2021.

His case, and that of Roland Carreno, 57, a former operations director for opposition party Popular Will who was detained in October 2020, highlight what advocates say is a delaying tactic by the authorities.

Both men had expected to be sentenced separately in recent weeks - in both instances for alleged terrorism and conspiracy which they deny - only to be told their cases were being moved unexpectedly to different courts and would have to start over, according to their lawyers.

Carreno's trial is expected to begin again at the end of September, said his lawyer, Joel Garcia. Tarazona's has yet to be rescheduled, Himiob said. They face between 25 and 30 in prison if convicted.

A restart to the proceedings against them "will destroy any hope of being absolved" for the two men, said Valentina Ballesta of Amnesty International.

Among other cases closely watched by opposition activists is that of former driver and bodyguard Franks Cabana, 36, who was detained in 2017 after making a phone call to Oscar Perez, a rogue former police officer who was accused of stealing a military helicopter and shooting at state buildings before being killed.

Witnesses for the prosecution have repeatedly failed to appear at hearings, including one in late August, said Cabana's lawyer, Ana Leonor Acosta of the Coalition for Human Rights and Democracy NGO. Cabana's mother, Xiomara Andara, said the legal process felt never-ending.

"Whenever it's time for a hearing there are no witnesses," she said.

Another person - 24-year-old anthropology student John Alvarez - was charged this week with conspiring with the six convicted activists, said lawyer Garcia, and has alleged mistreatment by state agents.

Lawyers for the men filed an appeal this week.

"But obviously I don't have faith in Venezuelan justice," said Oropeza, the wife of activist Bracho.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Daniel Wallis)