On November 26, a group of Venezuela's State Political Police (SEBIN) came to the private home of pro-democracy campaigner Maria Corina Machado to inform her that she was going to be charged with conspiring to assassinate thep of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro. The penalty, if found guilty, would be a maximum of 28 years in prison.
Yet this was only the culmination of a several months' long campaign against Machado. She was first alleged to have planned to kill the president and carry off a coup d'état by the "High Political Command of the Revolution," a group of five top political associates of Maduro, during a national television broadcast on May 28. During that same broadcast, Machado's personal email address and phone number were also made public -- a gross violation of privacy, and a clear incitement to violence. Indeed, she has received numerous death threats since, as have the rest of her family.
On June 4 the president himself described Machado as "a murderer and an assassin," and urged Judicial Branch to arrest her. The evidence? Supposed email exchanges between Machado and other opposition figures. Email exchanges that were subsequently certified by the email provider, Google, as forgeries. No further evidence was presented, and until late November no further official action was taken against Machado -- except for the campaign of harassment and vilification. And in the end, the charge has been reduced by the attorney to mere "conspiracy," which still carries a maximum penalty of 16 years in prison.
But Machado's real crime? Being a long-time campaigner for electoral transparency, and a critic of the governments of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro -- especially their propensity to amend the constitution of Venezuela to suit their electoral interests.
Maria Corina Machado has in the past been a co-founder, acting vice president and the president of Súmate, a volunteer civil association established in 2002 whose aim is to monitor the electoral process in Venezuela, and counter attempts to undermine its integrity by any political actor. It has also been effectively the strongest break on Chavez's tendencies toward authoritarianism. It is this background and her record as a democracy campaigner that got her elected as a Yale World Fellow in 2009 -- where we met and became friends.
Personally, I know her as a woman of immense strength and integrity. It comes as a great shock to know that she is in this very serious situation. And there are genuine fears that the regime will move against her over the Christmas period, in the hope that the timing will mean avoiding much exposure in the world news cycle. Which is why I am writing this piece and why I insist on drawing attention to this issue. This is something that should not pass by the international community.
Consider this position. Ignore for a moment the great international standing of this woman and the respect she commands amongst pro-democracy campaigners all over the world. Allow for a moment the Chavez and Maduro line that Súmate is an American front organization whose purpose is to destabilize the so-called "Venezuelan Revolution." Allow even for the sake of argument that the charges brought against Maria Corina are not just pure fabrication by the Chavista ruling elite, but that there may indeed be some evidence, somewhere that she may have done or planned to do something illegal.
Allow for all that, and then consider the following facts: The allegations as they stand have been clearly and purposefully built up by rumor rather than evidence over a long period of time. When pressed for the evidence, the accusers and prosecuting attorneys have changed stories and charges. Machado's rights to privacy and equality under law have been repeatedly and deliberately violated by government supporters and state organs -- it was even revealed at one point by the General Attorney, whether truly or otherwise, that the emails that allegedly prove her involvement with an anti-government plot were obtained because Machado had been under a secret investigation of which she was not made aware, something that is illegal under Venezuelan law. Machado has been deliberately linked to other conspiracies by pro-government media, in a deliberate and concerted campaign to discredit her.
Can you honestly trust that Maria Corina Machado will receive due consideration under the rule of law in this case? And if not, what does that say about the Venezuelan regime?
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago and 2009 Yale World Fellow