Two Venezuelan political prisoners who planned to run for congress had their hopes dashed by a seemingly arbitrary government ruling that has suddenly banned them from seeking public office.

Alexander Tirado and Raul Emilio Baduel were given congressional ballot spots last week by Voluntad Popular (VP), a leading opposition party that has been trying to free the prisoners for months.

Tirado and Baduel share a 6x12' cell

But on Monday the party could not register the incarcerated candidates in the national database. Voluntad Popular said that when they tried to enter the candidates names in the system, a message appeared on screen saying they had been “barred” from holding public office.

That came as a surprise to the opposition, because inmates are allowed to run for political office in Venezuela as long as their sentences are still under appeal, as is the case with Tirado and Baduel.

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Venezuelan authorities have not offered any explanation as to why the two men are prohibited from participating in the December 4 elections.

“This is yet another sign of the fear [of losing elections] that has taken over the perverse, anti-democratic system that governs us,” would-be candidate Baduel, whose father Raul Isaias, is also in prison on conspiracy charges, told Fusion in an email sent through a local activist.

“There is no separation of powers in Venezuela,” Tirado added.

Tirado and Baduel organized several anti-government marches and hunger strikes over the past five years. Both men were arrested in March 2014, amid a wave of anti-government protests. They were sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of “intimidating the public” and “conspiring to commit crimes” during a protest in the city of Maracay. Their sentences are being appealed.

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Tirado and Baduel, both in their thirties, argue the government fabricated evidence against them during their trial.

Prosecutors said Tirado and Baduel were arrested at night in Maracay, but a video shows it happened during a daytime protest

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Last week, on the eve of declaring their candidacies, Tirado said if elected to congress he would fight for an amnesty law for political prisoners. In handwritten statements to Fusion, both activists pledged to back efforts to re-write Venezuela’s constitution to ensure —among other things— judicial independence.

“As prisoners we have experienced in our own flesh many of the human rights violations that occur to thousands of Venezuelans who fall in the hands of this country’s judicial system,” Tirado told us in his letter, which he managed to smuggle out of prison. “Today, more than ever, public offices must be held by those who have proven their commitment to our country’s struggles.”

A fragment of Tirado's handwritten letter

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Tirado and Baduel had hoped that an electoral victory would help to secure their freedom from jail, because Venezuelan laws give parliamentarians immunity from prosecution. There's precedent for that happening. In 2011 three opposition leaders were released from jail a few months after they won seats in congress.

Although Tirado and Baduel will not be allowed to participate in the elections, they will still try to influence the vote by calling on Venezuelans to “massively” back opposition candidates on December 4

Raul Baduel (left) and Alexander Tirado have been in 3 prisons since they were detained last year

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The prisoners also have a message for the outside world:

“What we have in Venezuela is a dictatorship that dresses up as a democracy,” Tirado wrote.  “While a red elite is enriching itself each day, the needs of our people are greater and the poverty in our country grows.”

“Remember all prisoners and those who suffer as if you were with them in jail,” Baduel added in his pen, paraphrasing a biblical passage. “We are all vulnerable.”

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Tirado and Baduel are only the latest opposition leaders barred from participating in Venezuela’s upcoming election. Over the past month, Venezuela’s national comptroller has also banned two former mayors and a former congresswoman from running in this year’s election.  The reasons for banning opposition leaders include corruption charges, not publishing an administrative report on time, and not revealing complete information on personal finances.

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.