Leopoldo López, one the main leaders of the Venezuelan opposition, was sentenced on Thursday to 13 years, 9 months, 7 days and 12 hours in prison for participation in, and instigation of, demonstrations that took place in 2014, and which led to 43 deaths and left hundreds of people injured. López is scheduled to serve his sentence in the Ramo Verde military prison, where he has been held for the last 18 months.
As soon as the verdict was announced, López asked his wife, Lilian Tintori, to give a message to his followers. “Keep calm,” Tintori told the group of about 200 supporters of Voluntad Popular who had gathered in Plaza Bolívar in Chacao, where López served as mayor. On Friday, his followers and the rest of the opposition will meet in Plaza José Martí in Caracas, where López was arrested on February 18, 2014. His family will read a letter he has written about the direction he feels his supporters should take.
During the final hearing of a trial that lasted more than 18 months, López – who was dressed in a suit and tie, as he was last week when he expected to hear the verdict – tried to dismantle the prosecution’s case. The opposition leader, who was charged with planning and instigating crime with intent to harm, took three hours to respond to the arguments made against him.
According to several witnesses at the trial, the most moving moment was when López spoke at the end, when he told Judge Susana Barrientos what he would do after she delivered the verdict. Several people who were present at the trial later paraphrased his statement: “If I am set free, I will go to my daughter Manuela’s birthday, I will renew my vows to my wife and I will travel all around Venezuela; if I am sentenced, I will walk out with my head held high. You will be more scared to write that sentence than I will be receiving it.”
The defense has already said that it will appeal the jail term, which was one of the toughest that the court considered during the trial. Some members of the government were quick to celebrate the verdict. “That is justice, and the Ramo Verde monster got off lightly! 43 victims who are now resting eternally because of his fascist adventure!” Minister of Penitentiary Affairs María Iris Valera tweeted to her followers.
While Latin American leaders have not made any comments on the verdict, the United States responded immediately. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson said the administration is “concerned.”
The trial serves to illustrate that Venezuela is a polarized country, where rage and hatred live in deadly harmony
The final hearing in the López trial serves to illustrate that Venezuela is a polarized country, where rage and hatred live in deadly harmony. The day of the trial, Tintori and her family had to park their cars 200 meters from the Palace of Justice and cross Plaza Diego Ibarra on foot. Supporters of Voluntad Popular gathered in the square shouted “Strength and faith!” and “Free Leopoldo!” as Tintori tried to make her way through the crowd. Unlike last week, when there was barely any response from the administration, this time chavista supporters organized a demonstration at the same location and at the same time. A man standing on top of a truck with microphone in hand harangued the chavistas, shouting: “Fascists, out of Venezuela!” and “We have to put an end to the oligarchy!”
There was even more chaos as the López family and their advisers approached the doors of the courthouse. The crowd was so tightly packed that protesters and chavista supporters were practically within reach of one another. But perhaps to avoid a scuffle, the National Guard did not intervene. The groups shouted insults and threw objects at one another. The tension mounted as chavistas burned the orange flags associated with Voluntad Popular and attacked journalists at the scene. The opposition released a statement saying that one of its members died of a heart attack as a consequence of the incident. About a dozen people, including a pregnant congressional candidate, Manuala Bolívar, were reported injured.