CARACAS—Getting elected to congress was the easy part. Showing up to work could be the real challenge.
Three members of Venezuela's new congress are “political prisoners” who won their elections from behind bars. Now lawyers are fighting to get them out before the new job starts in January.
Renzo Prieto, Rosmit Mantilla and Gilberto Sojo were arrested in 2014 on conspiracy charges after participating in protests against Nicolas Maduro's socialist government. Since then, the three activists have been languishing behind bars in a tough prison run by Venezuela’s Intelligence Service while they wait for their trials to inch through the painfully slow justice system.
But that judicial delay allowed them to run for congress as “substitute legislators,” since Venezuelan law only bars convicted criminals from seeking public office.
Now, after being part of the Venezuelan opposition's historic supermajority victory on Dec. 6, Mantilla, Prieto and Sojo are hoping to use their new congressional privileges as a ticket out of jail.
“We will ask the courts to free them because they’ve acquired parliamentary immunity,” said Omar Mora, Mantilla’s head defense attorney. “But this country doesn’t always respect the rule of law, so you never know what can happen.”
Mantilla, Sojo and Prieto ran for congress on the ballot of Voluntad Popular, an opposition party that last year pushed hard for Maduro’s resignation by backing street protests that turned violent, killing 43 people amid clashes between protesters and the national guard.
More than 3,000 people were arrested during the protests, according to Amnesty International. Today, 75 activists are still in prison, many of them awaiting trial, says Venezuelan human rights group Foro Penal.
Mora says most of the incarcerated activists were locked up on questionable testimony from “anonymous” witnesses who were never presented to public defenders or cross-examined.
The lawyer claims the whole thing was a political crackdown to crush dissent and weaken the opposition. “It was part of an effort to link Voluntad Popular to anti-government conspiracies,” Mora said.
Mora’s client was a well-known leader in the party’s LGBT rights movement. He was arrested in May 2014, after an anonymous witness accused him of paying protesters to block roads in Caracas.
Mora claims that police “planted” envelopes with money in his client’s home. Mantilla was charged with burning down buildings, public intimidation, conspiring to commit crimes, blocking public roads and committing violent damages, even though he was never taped or arrested while doing any of those things. “Those charges cannot be sustained by the accusations made by one anonymous witness,” Mora said.
Gaby Arellano, a newly elected congresswoman for Voluntad Popular, says her party included the incarcerated activists on their electoral ballot to give more visibility to the plight of political prisoners.
Arellano picked Renzo Prieto as her running mate in the state of Tachira, even though the 28-year-old college activist wasn't a member of her political party prior to his arrest.
Prieto was arrested on May 10, 2014 after staging a prolonged protest that occupied a public square in Caracas, along with hundreds of other demonstrators. Authorities accused him of “conspiring to commit crimes” with three other people whom Prieto says he never met.
“During his initial hearings the prosecution was not able to prove that Prieto knew any of them,” human rights group Foro Penal said in a statement.
Gilberto Sojo, the third prisoner elected to congress, was a longtime activist for Voluntad Popular.
Sojo was a motorcycle deliveryman who organized social activities for retirees in San Agustin, an impoverished slum in Caracas. He also campaigned for Voluntad Popular in the neighborhood.
Officials accused him of hatching a one-man plot to liberate opposition leader Leopoldo López. According to prosecutors, Sojo was planning to burst into Venezuela’s Supreme Court armed with explosives to free Lopez during one of his hearings. Sojo was allegedly going to detonate the explosives to distract cops then whisk López away on his motorbike.
“These are crazy, made up allegations,” claims Sojo’s lawyer, Theresly Malave. She says Sojo was arrested in November 2014, based on the testimony of a single anonymous witness.
With Venezuela’s new congress set to take office Jan. 5, Malave says judges should respect “the will of the people” by liberating Sojo and the other two incarcerated congressmen-elect.
But that might take some doing. Alfredo Romero, director of human rights group Foro Penal, says Venezuelan judges in the past have been slow to grant parliamentary immunity; a similar case in the past took three years to resolve. And the fact that the three defendants are substitute lawmakers and not the main candidates might also make things slower.
“Judges will have to determine whether they have to be freed now, or only when one of the main legislators is absent from his job and needs to be replaced,” Romero said.
There might be another way out of jail. Mantilla, Prieto and Sojo could also benefit from a general amnesty law that the opposition is expected to push through congress as a top priority in January.
Still, that law could be held up for several months by the Chavista-controlled Supreme Court, and the country’s president, who has made it clear he is not willing to work with the opposition congress on several issues.
“I will not accept any amnesty laws,” President Maduro bellowed after his socialist party lost congressional elections last week. “The assassins of the people must face trial.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.