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Wave of outrage in Venezuela after six trade unionists convicted of conspiracy and terrorism

The attorney general’s office argues that the leaders — sentenced to 16 years in prison after demanding wage increases — planned subversive acts

Protesta contra la detención de seis sindicalistas
Protest against the arrest of six trade unionists, this Monday in Caracas.Rayner Peña R (EFE)

“It’s not possible that we have so many workers imprisoned for defending their just claims,” shouted union leader Griselda Sánchez, during a demonstration in front of the United Nations headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela.

Last week, a court handed down a 16-year prison sentence to six trade unionists. This has unleashed a wave of indignation in Venezuela, mobilizing activists, government opponents, NGOs and union representatives. All of them repudiate the statements made by Attorney General Tarek William Saab. This senior official — faithful to President Nicolás Maduro — recently reiterated that the six men aren’t trade unionists, but “conspirators.”

The sentence was issued by a court in Caracas that handles terrorism cases. The men were accused of conspiracy and criminal association. In 2022 and earlier in 2023, they participated in protests and mobilizations seeking wage increases. This is in the context of a depressing labor outlook in the country, where the minimum wage is equivalent to around $5. The ruling was made very quickly.

Those sentenced are Emilio Negrín, Gabriel Blanco, Reinaldo Cortés, Alonso Meléndez, Alcides Bracho and Nelson Astudillo. Most are linked to the unions of the administrative apparatus of the Venezuelan state, such as the courts and the legislature. Negrín is affiliated with Codesa — the Confederation of Autonomous Unions of Venezuela — a small left-wing trade union. Four of them are members of Bandera Roja (Red Flag): a 50-year-old minority party with Marxist roots that today belongs to the Venezuelan opposition.

Protest against the arrest of six trade unionists, this Monday in Caracas.
Protest against the arrest of six trade unionists, this Monday in Caracas.Rayner Peña R (EFE)

The ruling has drawn angry criticism from many sectors of the opposition. The Unitary Platform — the main opposition coalition — issued a statement rejecting the measure. Workers from the National Union Coalition gathered days ago in the center of the city, in solidarity with their colleagues. They criticized the lack of witnesses in the trial and promised to appeal the decision.

Former congresswoman María Corina Machado — from the political party Vente Venezuela, who is currently leading the opinion polls in the country — stated on her Twitter account that, in Venezuela, “justice is a tentacle of tyranny. This is a grotesque and cruel act. These people have been arrested for denouncing the abuses of the regime to their co-workers. All my solidarity to these brave fighters.”

Former governor Henrique Capriles — a presidential candidate from the Primero Justicia party — also spoke out about the convictions, stating that the decision was “horrifying; all this without any proof.” Provea — an NGO dedicated to the defense of human rights — described the ruling as “brutal” and “an arbitrary measure taken in a judicial process where the only witness to the complaint never appeared for a year and two months.”

In the accusation presented by the attorney general against these workers — which the defense lawyers have in their possession — it’s reported that an anonymous complaint came from a citizen named Adalberto. The defense alleges that he is a “cooperating patriot” — one of the Chavista volunteers who are authorized to do what is known as “social intelligence” work. The informant apparently gave his report to the Strategic Intelligence Directorate of the Bolivarian National Police in July 2022. The investigation began at that time.

The defendants are accused of being part of a resistance plot, allegedly created to organize terrorist actions “against the Venezuelan State and democracy,” such as planning kidnappings, encouraging protests and sabotaging national holidays. In the charges filed, the head prosecutor in this case — Elín Teodoro León — affirms that the General Directorate of National Counterintelligence (DGCIM) accessed the men’s private WhatsApp conversations and monitored their activities.

Eduardo Torres — a defense attorney for the union leaders — acknowledges the existence of police intelligence investigations against his clients. But he has stated that an intelligence procedure such as the one described “does not count as evidence in [Venezuela’s] Organic Code of Criminal Procedure.”

“In addition to this, the police report clearly establishes that the leaders were not carrying out any political action, nor were they discussing any particular procedure against anyone,” Torres emphasized.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab assumed responsibility for the charges from the beginning of the judicial process: “These people aren’t union leaders. They don’t belong to any union. They’re not active workers. They are not registered with the Venezuelan Institute of Social Security. They’re [being detained] for conspiring [against the state]. These so-called union leaders are attacking institutions [and] Venezuelan democracy.”

“Enough of the lies and rigged trials,” Torres replied shortly afterwards, in a message posted on social media. “These fighters are social leaders: they defend fair wages, they have the support of the Venezuelan people and the backing of international bodies, such as the International Labor Organization.”

Yorbelis Oropeza — the wife of one of the detainees — claimed that the activists “have been unjustly sentenced by a judge who only does what the government tells her to do. We Venezuelans who believe in justice — who believe in truth — are going to continue fighting. My husband and the [other trade unionists] have been punished simply for asking for a better quality of life.”

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