Venezuelans Accused of Rebellion Are Hauled Into Military Court

  • Procedures are closed to public; Caracas offers few details
  • ‘These are times of dictatorship,’ Governor Capriles says

Hundreds of Venezuelans arrested in the past week have been tried in secretive military courts, a new maneuver by the government of President Nicolas Maduro as he fights to retain his grip on power in the face of escalating political opposition and massive street protests.

Those taken into custody were charged with crimes including “rebellion” and “insulting authorities,” and some were sentenced within hours, according to civil-rights groups. Thousands of people have been detained across the country in recent months, with authorities rounding up politicians, activists, student leaders, even shoppers waiting in queues to buy food who made complaints police officers decided were out of line.

Activists take cover behind a makeshift shield during a protest in Caracas, on May 8.

Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“These are times of dictatorship,” said Henrique Capriles, a Maduro foe and the governor of Miranda state.

As many as 780 people were arrested last week for looting in Valencia and other cities in the state of Carabobo, according to the local government. Of those, 251 were processed in military courts. Capriles said the trials took place at 11 p.m. on May 6, a Saturday. He said similar trials of civilians have also occurred in the states of Zulia and Falcon.

The military procedures are closed to the public, and the national government has released no information about convictions. But Foro Penal, which tracks detentions and provides legal assistance, has charted an increase.

“The number of cases of civilians put in front of these tribunals for political reasons is surging,” said Alonso Medina, the group’s director. There has also been a rise in arrests for “betraying the fatherland” and other treason charges. “We’re extremely worried about how carelessly they’re being levied against civilians,” Medina said.

Maduro’s interior minister, Nestor Reverol, has defended the government’s actions. “The terrorist right-wing, on top of causing families to go through a mourning process, has instigated rebellion, which is a criminal military crime,” he said last week.

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Triple-digit inflation and stark shortages of food and other basic goods have spurred demonstrations drawing hundreds of thousands of people, with street battles claiming at least 35 lives in the past month. Videos of national guardsmen pursuing young protesters and whisking them away on motorcycles have gone viral online.

Activists and police face off in Caracas, on May 8.

Photographer: Ferderico Parra/AFP via Getty Images

Maduro, the late Hugo Chavez’s hand-picked successor, has responded to calls for his ouster by trying to tighten his hold on the presidency, with his administration annulling legislation passed by lawmakers and delaying local elections. He has called for a popular assembly to rewrite the constitution, a move that has fanned further outrage.

While he routinely accuses his detractors of treason for allegedly working with the U.S. to try to topple him, Maduro has yet to jail the most prominent opposition leaders on treason charges. But several are behind bars, accused of other crimes. One, Leopoldo Lopez, has been imprisoned for three years for allegedly inciting violence during protests in 2014. His wife, Lilian Tintori, told a crowd after she visited him Sunday, “Leopoldo is proud of Venezuela and asks us to keep fighting.”

The practice of trying civilians in military courts is relatively new but is “becoming ever more frequent,” the civil-rights group Provea said in a statement, “a desperate measure by the dictatorship to try to stop the protests and punish demonstrators.”

Last week, Nixon Leal, an opposition activist, was arrested in Caracas as he distributed medicine in a hospital and accused of treason before a military court, according to members of his family. In April, Luis Lucena Pinero was taken into custody in Barquisimeto for shouting slogans against officials outside a base and transferred to a military prison near Caracas, according to a relative who said the charges he faces aren’t known.

The use of military courts is a ploy to circumvent due process, Medina said. “It’s reminiscent of trials in Venezuela during the 19th century when military tribunals were held on ships anchored offshore to avoid scrutiny from the public.”

For the president, the options are dwindling, said David Smilde, a Tulane University sociologist who studies Venezuela and visits frequently.

“Maduro sees himself on the ropes and sees his historical role as continuing the revolution at any cost. They’re pulling out any tool they have,” Smilde said. “They’re using it to instill fear.”

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