Prisoner of Conscience

Venezuela Just Threw My Cousin in Jail

Leopoldo López is a prisoner of conscience—and also a threat to leftist autocrat Nicolas Maduro.

09.23.15 5:00 AM ET

“They’re either going to have to kill me or imprison me because I’m not leaving and I’m not giving up.” That’s what Leopoldo López, Venezuela’s most prominent opposition leader, told me in his Caracas home after the policeman assigned to protect him, Carlos Mendoza, was shot at 12 times and killed as he waited for López in his SUV in what was a failed assassination attempt against the latter.

Ten years on from that conversation López has survived several attempts on his life—the Venezuelan government has typically claimed they are botched robberies. He is now in prison and last Friday was declared Amnesty International’s first official Prisoner of Conscience from Venezuela in living memory. But what the media covering López’s sham trial and sentencing have failed to appreciate is that the government’s objective is to extinguish López’s life force.

Leopoldo is my first cousin (he is the only son of my mother’s only sister). He was sentenced last week to the maximum sentence possible for allegedly having engaged in arson and incitement to violence. López was railroaded. According to a credible Venezuelan polling firm, López leads in Venezuelan electoral polls by 43.8 percent in a one-to-one matchup against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the successor to, and disciple of, the deceased socialist strongman Hugo Chavez.

Maduro is terrified of an electoral contest where Venezuela’s poor overwhelmingly vote to elect as president a man who rejects the kleptocracy and its hateful revolution. López is in prison precisely and only because he is among the few opposition leaders with an unwavering commitment to consistently denouncing the government as what it is: a dictatorship that must come to an end.

The prison sentence was very clear to underline that López is disqualified from running for election. If you add this new disqualification to Chavez’s previous order to bar Leopoldo (in 2005), he has been disqualified from electoral office for a total of 23 years and 9 months.

The government has so far failed to drive López into exile despite several sub rosa approaches including a scenario where López “escapes” from prison and is allowed to exit the country unharmed. Maduro has also tried to force him out of the country in an “exchange” whereby President Obama frees a Puerto Rican separatist in order to secure López’s freedom. López would have none of it.

After his recent sentencing, López was defiant and he managed to hand-write a message to his supporters promising that he will “never tire” in his struggle for a free Venezuela. The stubborn refusal of López to give up has now pushed the Venezuelan government to severe measures with regard to his confinement. The objectives of the Maduro government, now that López is sentenced to almost 14 years in prison, are revealed by the conditions of his incarceration.

Most egregiously, López has been forbidden to see a medical doctor since the day of his arrest 18 months ago. Despite dozens of requests by my aunt and my cousins, no blood tests have been permitted, let alone a urine test to determine if López is affected by an infection or imbalance. Leopoldo was a mountain climber and triathlete prior to his arrest, but nobody knows what physical ailment he could be suffering from at present—at 44, he is no spring chicken.

Viktor Yushchenko, the former Ukrainian president and leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution, sent a public letter to López in prison, expressing his admiration and support, which was echoed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (PDF), UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (PDF), UN Committee Against Torture (PDF), 33 former Ibero-American presidents and prime ministers (PDF), the European Parliament (PDF), Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group, and many more. Yushchenko subsequently contacted me with urgency to warn me about the possibility that López might be poisoned while in prison. Yushchenko, who was famously the target of a Russian assassination plot using dioxin, explained to me that there are multiple ways the Venezuelan regime could slowly destroy López’s physical integrity. It’s not like the Venezuelan government doesn’t have Putin’s unquestionable support. Equally problematically, Cuba’s police state (which supervises Venezuela’s security services) has perfected the art of breaking political prisoners so that, once released, they are a shadow of their former selves.

Beyond the worry over Leopoldo’s physical integrity there is the urgent concern about the government’s obvious plan to destroy his mental health. In violation of international treaties on the treatment of prisoners, Leopoldo is held in Ramo Verde military prison where there are two buildings—Annex A and Annex B. In Annex A there are 179 prisoners in several dozen cells. In Annex B, a four-story building with dozens of cells, there is only one prisoner: Leopoldo. He is held in a 6-foot by 6-foot holding cell containing only a bed. There is no chair in his cell. He is allowed only one book, the Holy Bible, whereas prior to the sentencing he had a library of more than 100 books. Leopoldo is not allowed any paper, no pencils, no notebooks. He is not allowed to study. A practicing Catholic, Leopoldo has been refused access to a priest for 18 months and only on three occasions has he been allowed to attend Catholic Mass.

In theory, solitary confinement is reserved for either prisoners who have disciplinary problems or prisoners who are extremely dangerous. In the eyes of Maduro, López lacks discipline inasmuch as he refuses to bend to the will of the revolutionary government. But López has only engaged in peaceful protests and his focus is nonviolent action and his crime is to think differently. Solitary confinement for Lopez is an egregious violation of his human rights and is aimed at destroying his mental health.

The isolation of being in an empty building, with no contact (not even with prison guards—Lopez is watched by 12 cameras in Annex B), nothing to read, nothing to write with, and the impossibility of having any meaningful interaction is under every conceivable psychological metric considered torture—cruel and inhuman treatment (PDF). Lights are turned off at 7:30 p.m. and Lopez isn’t even permitted a candle. He must bear the darkness until daybreak. Without reading material or human contact the brain atrophies. Without conversation the mind decays. Isolation leads to anxiety, depression, anger, hopelessness, and psychosis.

Nelson Mandela’s autobiography details his opinion of such conditions: “I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There was no end and no beginning; there is only one’s own mind, which can begin to play tricks… I had nothing to read, nothing to write on or with, no one to talk to. The mind begins to turn in on itself, and one desperately wants something outside oneself on which to fix one’s attention.” Another Nobel laureate, Liu Xiaobo, is in solitary confinement in China, where his wife, Liu Xia, has suffered terribly herself isolated under house arrest.

Millions of people hope that Leopoldo, who stands as an immovable oak against the winds of Venezuela’s tyranny, will survive the harsh conditions of his imprisonment in what remains of Maduro’s presidency. The alternative, that Leopoldo’s brilliant, courageous mind will decay, is a frightening prospect and underlines the need to urgently protest his false conviction and imprisonment.

Thor Halvorssen is president and CEO of Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum.