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Venezuela's Next Generation of Political Prisoners

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For as much as his friends and supporters, both college professors and baseball stars, assured us that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was a model democrat, his actions in the wake of the recent referendum victory seem to be exceeding even the worst nightmares of his many critics. Rather than being an "I told so" moment, several opposition leaders are facing the imminent prospect of arrest and imprisonment, inaugurating a whole new generation of political prisoners of this seemingly appealing revolution.

The most shocking news came on Thursday, March 19, as Chief Prosecutor Katiuska Plaza announced an arrest warrant for the Mayor of Maracaibo Manuel Rosales under invented corruption charges. Days earlier, Chávez threatened to jail other opposition elected officials in Zulia, such as Pablo Pérez, and in Carabobo, with Governor Henrique Salas Feo. There are serious fears of arrest for the current Mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, as well as the former Mayor of Chacao, Leopoldo López, both of whom are planning to appeal before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights next week.

The message is clear: the Chávez government believes it has won impunity to act above the law, paid for with political capital won by majority vote.

The momentum has been building rapidly over the past month. Under grinding pressure of the economic crisis and crashing oil prices, Chávez is aggressively seeking refuge in the familiar politics of confrontation. Since winning the vote, he has embarked on an expropriation spree to nationalize several rice and food manufacturers (including from Cargill), seizing farms and land (such as Smurfit Kappa), threatening to personally destroy one of the country's largest business groups (Empresas Polar), and even laying siege to one of the country's most beloved gastronomic institutions with Commerce Minister Eduardo Samán's attack against the areperas - the makers of the country's most popular sandwiches - demanding that they sell their products at a fraction of the price.

The most controversial developments are related to a reform bill being passed through the National Assembly to alter the Law on Decentralization, placing greater powers into the hands of the central government, stripping the regions of authority, and conveniently allowing the chavistas to seize control of all major ports - including the lucrative oil export infrastructure. The decentralization law was the crowning achievement of 50 years of democracy, returning the country to a concentration of power not seen since the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez. As we have seen in Zulia and Carabobo, anyone standing in the way of this agenda will be thrown into a tropical gulag.

On motives and methodology, I can only speak with familiarity about the case of my own client, the political prisoner Eligio Cedeño, which highlights some of the systematic violations of basic rights that now occur with regularity in Venezuela.

In these legalistic crackdowns against individuals, the overlapping motives are driven by economic greed, pure political power, and personal vendetta. With Cedeño, one of the country's most successful financial entrepreneurs, his assets were pilferdied by competitors with close relations to the state. Politically, the state believed that his close friendship with the opposition labor leader Carlos Ortega and others meant that he assisted his escape from the country - an allegation Cedeño firmly denies, but truth is of little circumstance in comparison to the state's paranoia. Personally, there are no shortage of theories.

In terms of methodology, the types of persecution we have experienced has been exemplary of the tools common implemented against the opposition. Just days ago, reporters on state television VTV "received" copies of illegally hacked emails subject to attorney-client privilege, humiliating and attacking both our legal team and Eligio Cedeño. The public airing of hacked emails and illegally tapped phone calls is a common practice in Venezuela - used to attack and encourage violence against everyone from innocent 19-year-old student leaders to elected officials. On March 10, VTV also aired a segment exposing private emails between Mayor Ledezma and Milos Alcalay, accusing them of treason. Somehow these tactics are rarely mentioned by people such as Sean Penn and Magglio Ordoñez.