Winning Big, Venezuela's Opposition Now Plans Push For Prisoner Release : Parallels Venezuela's opposition won a landslide victory in Dec. 6 legislative elections, raising new hopes for the release of dozens of political prisoners — including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
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Winning Big, Venezuela's Opposition Now Plans Push For Prisoner Release

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Winning Big, Venezuela's Opposition Now Plans Push For Prisoner Release

Winning Big, Venezuela's Opposition Now Plans Push For Prisoner Release

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Venezuela held legislative elections last Sunday. The opposition party won a landslide victory. It was a political turning point after 16 years of Socialist Party control. During that time, the Socialist Party imprisoned dozens of government opponents. When the new Congress convenes next month, opposition leader say that one of their top priorities will be freedom for political prisoners. Reporter John Otis tells us more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Legal experts say Venezuela is holding about 80 political prisoners - mostly student activists and opposition politicians who took part in antigovernment protests last year.

(Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: They are not allowed to speak to journalists, but one detainee who's being held at the government's intelligence headquarters in Caracas agrees to talk by phone if I don't reveal his name.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He claims to have been repeatedly beaten by guards. That's left him with a broken hand and two missing fingernails. But he has yet to see a doctor. Former detainees say they were also mistreated.

GERARDO RESPLENDOR: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Gerardo Resplendor is a graduate student in engineering who helped plan last year's protests. He spent 14 months in jail, but says the first day was the most brutal.

RESPLENDOR: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Resplendor says he and other handcuffed detainees were placed in a large room dubbed the soccer field. That's because guards treated the prisoners like soccer balls by kicking them around the room for the next hour. Resplendor was among 3,500 protesters arrested last year. Most were released for lack of evidence. Still, Resplendor stands accused of possession of explosives. Other activists face charges of terrorism and inciting violence that could mean lengthy prison terms. Daniel Wilkinson monitors Latin America for Human Rights Watch. He says many of these charges are trumped up.

DANIEL WILKINSON: There's no independent judiciary left in the country. Instead, what you have are judges and prosecutors who fear that if they don't do what the government wants they're going to lose their jobs and could even end up behind bars themselves.

OTIS: So how does Venezuela stack up to its Latin-American neighbors?

WILKINSON: I'd say it's second only to Cuba when it comes to having a government that's willing and able to jail its critics and its opponents.

OTIS: A prime example, Wilkinson says, is opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, Venezuela's best-known political prisoner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEOPOLDO LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: After giving this speech during last year's demonstrations, Lopez was arrested and sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison - a decision that sparked international outrage.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

FRANKLIN NIEVES: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In October, the lead prosecutor in the Lopez case fled with his family to Miami where he released this video claiming that the evidence used to convict Lopez was fabricated. Government officials refused to speak with NPR about political prisoners. Pressure to free them is growing in the wake of the ruling party's dismal showing in the legislative elections. Opposition leaders say they will use their new powers in Congress to pass an amnesty law. But in a defiant speech, President Maduro said that if an amnesty bill reaches his desk, he will veto it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He said, "they could send me a thousand amnesty bills, but the assassins of the people must be judged and they must pay." For NPR News, I'm John Otis, Caracas, Venezuela.

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