In a hand-scrawled note written shortly after being sentenced to almost 14 years in prison, Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López urged his followers to “not give up” and to put their hopes in upcoming legislative elections.
In the letter, which circulated on social media and was read by his wife, Lilian Tintori, López remained defiant.
“I don’t regret in the least the decision I’ve made,” he wrote. “Great causes require great sacrifices.”
Late Thursday, Venezuela’s courts gave the 44-year-old politician the maximum sentence for his role in last year’s protests, finding him guilty on charges of arson, inciting unrest, damaging public property and conspiracy.
Civil society groups called his 19-month trial a sham and said López was denied even his basic rights as a defendant.
López, the former mayor of Chacao and a former presidential candidate, is one of the country’s most popular politicians, and the harsh sentence is likely to exacerbate tensions in the troubled country. Opposition groups are calling for a peaceful national march on Sept. 19.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the charges against López “illegitimate” and demanded his release.
“The decision by the court raises great concern about the political nature of the judicial process and verdict, and the use of the Venezuelan judicial system to suppress and punish government critics,” he said in a statement.
Venezuela Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez called Kerry’s statements “insolent meddling” in Venezuelan affairs.
“This delinquent that the USA defends promoted terrorist acts,” she wrote on Twitter.
López was jailed after leading a Feb. 12, 2014, strike in Caracas that was part of national demonstrations sparked by rampant crime and food shortages. The unrest ultimately lasted for weeks and left more than 40 dead and hundreds injured amid partisan clashing.
López and others called the protest “La Salida” or “The Exit,” and President Nicolás Maduro said it was cover for a plot to topple the 16-year-old socialist administration.
The government and some protest victims — those who suffered property damage or lost loved ones — blamed López for fueling tensions.
Even the prosecution agreed, however, that López wasn’t at the site of any of the attacks. Instead, the government accused him of sending “subliminal messages” on Twitter that inspired the violence.
In addition, the defense wasn’t allowed to submit any of its evidence, except the testimony of two witnesses introduced by the prosecution, said Human Rights Watch, which has reviewed the case.
Three students, whose cases were linked to López’s, were sentenced to four months, six months and more than 10 years — although they’ve been granted conditional liberty.
“We’ve seen the brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters last year, the complicity of prosecutors who opened criminal cases against the victims while ignoring clear signs of abuse, and now the conviction of three students and a prominent political opponent based on totally unsubstantiated charges,” Human Rights Watch Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco said in a statement. “What else do Latin American governments need to finally call on the Maduro administration to end its repression.”
During his closing testimony Thursday, López intended to present an eight-minute video taken on the day of the demonstration. In it, he’s seen asking followers to remain peaceful and ignore government provocations. It then shows him heading home that afternoon on the subway. Later that day, gunmen on motorcycles fired into a crowd of protesting students killing Basil Da Costa. It was that murder that sparked the ensuing damage at the Public Ministry, the video argues.
Even so, López never got to show the tape in court.
On Friday, Republican lawmakers urged the Obama administration to give up on incipient attempts at rapprochement with Caracas and apply further sanctions on the government.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican presidential hopeful, called on the administration to fully implement the “Venezuela defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014,” which denies visas and freezes assets of human rights violators.
“Leopoldo López’s arrest, incarceration, show trial and prison sentence have all been a sham,” Rubio said in a statement. “The Venezuelan regime is robbing Leopoldo of his freedom, his wife of a husband, his kids of a father and the Venezuelan people of a leader committed to their democratic aspirations.”
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, called on the administration to slap sanctions on five individuals, including Attorney General Luisa Ortega, the head of investigations at the Directorate of Military Intelligence Gen. Wilman Hernández and trial judge Susana Barreiros.
“The malicious use of the judicial system as an instrument to punish and persecute dissent is only part of the problem with Maduro’s brutal regime that persists on ruling Venezuela with an iron fist,” she said. “I call on all responsible nations to condemn this miscarriage of justice and call for Leopoldo’s immediate, unconditional release.”
The news comes amid the backdrop of congressional elections, which will take place Dec. 6. Polls suggest the opposition could take control of the legislature. Among its goals is to pass an amnesty law that would release López and other “political prisoners” like Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma.
In his letter, López urged his followers to “vote with all [their] might, and defend in each one of the electoral centers, and on the street, our desire for change.”
In one portion of López’s letter, he acknowledged that his two young children were likely to hear terrible things about him and that he was going to be in prison for a long time.
Tell them “that their father is more free than ever,” he wrote.
He signed the letter: “Political prisoner sentenced to 13 years and 9 months by the Venezuelan dictatorship.”