Antonio Ledezma, the imprisoned mayor of Venezuela’s capital, will ask the courts this week to drop charges that he was part of an alleged criminal network that planned to kill President Nicolás Maduro.
Ledezma’s lawyer, Omar Estancio, said his client is innocent and that the military witness who connected him to a coup plot may have provided the testimony under duress.
Few legal experts, however, think the courts will back down, saying Maduro has turned the judicial branch into a cudgel to hound the opposition.
Ledezma, 59, an outspoken government critic, was arrested Thursday after Maduro accused him of conspiring with U.S. authorities and Venezuelan military officials in a coup plot. According to Maduro, Ledezma was part of a shadowy plan to use aircraft to assassinate him and bomb the presidential palace and the ministry of defense.
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On Monday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the allegations of U.S. involvement “ludicrous.”
“The Venezuelan government should stop trying to blame the United States and other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela,” she said.
The opposition has said the allegations are little more than a smokescreen to hide a tanking economy, rampant crime and other social problems ahead of congressional elections.
Estancio could not comment on the government’s case, but he said National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello has said that the charges came after a military official testified against Ledezma. According to news reports, that same official is in solitary confinement in a cell called La Tumba, or the tomb.
“In La Tumba they’re incommunicado, it’s kept at cold temperatures, there are lights on 24 hours a day, music blaring and the food is poor – it’s ‘white torture,’ ” Estancio said. “If (the military official) made the statements while he was in La Tumba then by extension they were statements made under pressure.”
Estancio also said he “had faith” that the legal system would recognize Ledezma’s right to remain free during the trial.
But faith in the courts may be hard to rationalize, experts said. Ledezma was arrested without a warrant and then brought up on the charges of conspiracy and the equivalent of criminal racketeering – two allegations that would usually require a heavy burden of proof.
So far, however, the government has provided little evidence, except for an open letter, which called for a national agreement to promote a “peaceful transition.” The government says that letter, which was signed by Ledezma and others, was the signal to launch the coup.
“Unless the government wants to outlaw even talking about a transition, then there was no crime here,” opposition leader Henry Ramos Allup said in a statement.
Examples of the president’s hand on the balance of justice abound. Maduro often calls for investigations on national television only to have pliant courts adopt the case. When judges rule against party wishes they are sometimes fired, said Yvett Lugo, president of the Caracas Bar Association.
“Political influence over the courts has always existed, but now it’s very apparent – there’s not even an attempt to hide it,” she said. “Dissent in this country is being criminalized.”
Last year’s election of the attorney general – the country’s top legal authority – is another example, Lugo said. By law, it requires two-thirds of the National Assembly to approve the appointment. But when the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela couldn’t muster the votes, the rules were changed and the official was swept in with the simple majority that the party controls. The high court signed off on the unconstitutional maneuver, she said.
“There’s a connection between all the powers of the government,” she said, “and the Supreme Court basically approves all the decisions that are made.”
Ledezma is just the latest in a long string of opposition politicians who have come under the gun. In February 2014, former presidential candidate Leopoldo López was jailed for his role in national protests that left more than 40 dead on both sides of the political divide. The government contends those demonstrations were part of a coup plot. The following month, Daniel Ceballos and Vicenzo Scarano, the opposition mayors of San Cristóbal and San Diego, were arrested in connection to the protests.
In December, María Corina Machado was stripped of her seat in the National Assembly amid charges of conspiracy.
“All of these cases are part of a sad and lamentable use of the justice system to neutralize political adversaries,” said Alberto Arteaga, a Central University of Venezuela criminal law professor. “It sends the message that anyone who acts as a political leader may face jail.”
That the legal system can act so quickly against political leaders is ironic, Artega said. Venezuela has one of the highest homicide rates in the world and it’s being fueled in part by impunity. Less than 10 percent of murders are resolved in the courts, he said.
“Our legal system seems to care more about political dissent than violent crime,” he said.
The administration has defended its actions and says it’s the victim of a global conspiracy that’s being backed by the corporate media.
“The right wing wants impunity for ‘politicians’ who take violent and coup-plotting short cuts,” Maduro recently posted on his Twitter account.
Despite the odds in court, Estancio says he believes in the system.
“I’m a lawyer so I have faith in the law,” he said. “When I lose that faith it will be time for me to retire.”