On December 23, National Constituent Assembly (ANC) head Delcy Rodriguez announced that the ANC’s internal Truth Commission had passed a resolution recommending that the government apply “alternative” sentences to individuals arrested as part of a crackdown on dissent in recent years.
The announcement was framed as a gesture of goodwill from the government, as the issue of political prisoners has been one of the opposition’s priorities in ongoing negotiations in the Dominican Republic. On December 18, the opposition-controlled National Assembly approved a declaration calling on Maduro to free the country’s political prisoners, citing the Christmas season and the process of negotiations as opportunities for the government to demonstrate good faith. On December 12, opposition negotiator and legislator Luis Florido claimed that an eventual accord could result in 114 political prisoners being freed.
While Rodriguez said the government would enact these recommendations in 80 cases, it appears that far fewer than that were released immediately following the announcement. Tareck William Saab, who was named Attorney General by the ANC in August, claimed his office was issuing “judicial measures” in 69 cases. However, the non-governmental Center for Action and Defense of Human Rights (CADEF) found that a total of 41 individuals were released from detention on December 23-24 in connection with the announcement, and the following day La Patilla reported the figure had gone up to 48. The timing of the holidays and the lack of an officially-published list has made it difficult to track the release of individuals since December 25.
Additionally, some of the international reporting of the announcement has glossed over its conditional nature. Those released were not pardoned or exonerated. Instead, they were merely assigned new sentences outside of prison time. Some individuals, reportedly including electoral analyst Roberto Picón, have been fitted with ankle monitors and transferred to house arrest. Others, like former opposition mayor Alfredo Ramos, have to present themselves to a judge every 30 days. And in at least four cases, individuals reported to courthouses on December 26 only to find that no judge was available to rule on their cases, and their new sentence remains unknown.
Whatever international goodwill the government may have hoped to receive from the release, it was overshadowed by the fact that on December 20, the ANC issued a decree limiting the ability of opposition political parties to participate in elections. The “Constituent Decree for the Participation in Electoral Processes” states that in order for parties to be able to freely participate in an election they must have participated in the election immediately before it. If they have not, the parties must be “renewed” by the CNE, a process by which parties have to present signatures from 0.5% of registered voters in 12 states. In effect, this applies to the three main parties of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD )coalition that boycotted municipal elections on December 10—Voluntad Popular, Primero Justicia, and Accion Democratica—which will all have to go through this process in order to participate in presidential elections widely expected to be held in the first half of 2018.
As a result of this move, the opposition guarantors of the negotiations—Mexico and Chile’s foreign ministers—signaled that they are reassessing their continued participation in the talks, which are scheduled to restart January 11.
How Many? Prisoners of Conscience vs. Political Prisoners
Recent weeks have highlighted the many numeric discrepancies in public discussion of political prisoners. In its December 18 declaration, the legislature claimed that there were a total of 408 political prisoners, yet Florido claimed there were 382 in his remarks about an eventual accord. For its part, non-governmental Foro Penal—which has emerged as one of the most internationally-cited groups documenting the issue—claims that there are 214 as of January 8. Foro Penal director, Alfredo Romero, responded to this discrepancy by criticizing what he called “ghost lists” of political prisoners, essentially suggesting that Florido and the MUD leadership are inflating the number.
But there are other possibilities. The opposition leadership might simply be using an outdated tally. Foro Penal’s list is constantly being updated to reflect the release of certain individuals. On October 30, when the organization’s list received international attention due to its endorsement and “certification” by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, it listed 380 political prisoners, a figure closer to Florido’s estimate.
Yet it may also be that the differences in the total number of political prisoners in Venezuela today are due to the ambiguities of specific cases. There are varying definitions of who exactly constitutes a “political prisoner,” and the term is continually invoked for partisan political purposes. A person who is portrayed as a political prisoner by his or her allies, might be considered a criminal by the government and its supporters. For instance, many in the Venezuelan opposition—as well as Foro Penal—consider former police official Ivan Simonovis a political prisoner, despite the fact that Simonovis, who is currently under house arrest, has been accused, tried and found responsible for civilian deaths during the 2002 failed coup against Hugo Chavez. Another cause celebre is activist Lorent Saleh, who was extradited by Colombia when tapes emerged of him suggesting the opposition needed to use snipers to kill 20 people in order to cause a crisis of governability.
Amnesty International distinguishes between political prisoners—or, individuals imprisoned for political motives—and the more strictly defined “prisoners of conscience.” AI defines a prisoner of conscience as “someone who has not used or advocated violence but is imprisoned because of who they are (sexual orientation, ethnic, national or social origin, language, birth, colour, sex or economic status) or what they believe (religious, political or other conscientiously held beliefs).”
In Venezuela today, there are a number of more clear-cut cases of prisoners of conscience. The most well-known case cited by AI is that of Leopoldo Lopez. His trial was marked by widespread irregularities, and the government’s allegations that he is responsible for violence during a wave of 2014 protests because of subliminal messages appears exaggerated if not bizarre.
Yet there are also a number of cases who have not received nearly as much attention, as they lack Lopez´s political profile. Considering he is still under house arrest, Roberto Picón is another such case. Picón advised the MUD on its electoral strategy, and it is likely that he was detained as part of a government effort to weaken the opposition´s electoral organization.