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Latin America

How a student leader was prosecuted in Venezuela’s notorious military courts

On May 17, Carlos Ramírez found himself in front of a military court facing treason charges. The 27-year-old law student had been arrested two days earlier as he headed to an anti government protest in the city of Merida.
5 Jul 2017 – 01:21 PM EDT
Alis Flores, the mother of student Carlos Ramirez, shows a photo of her son's graduation. Crédito: Manuel Rueda

There was virtually no evidence presented to incriminate Carlos Ramírez, a well known student leader in Merida, of trying to overthrow Venezuela’s government.

No witnesses appeared at his hearing at a military court. Yet a police declaration, which said that he had screamed out anti governments slogans and invited others to disobey Venezuelan laws, was all the judge needed to order his imprisonment.

Ramirez was jailed for 45 days while a military prosecutor investigates the alleged subversive activity.

“This is an abhorrent violation of his human rights,” says Ramírez’s lawyer, Pedro Troconez. “He was only protesting peacefully, ” adds his father, Carlos Alfredo Ramírez.

Ramírez is one of dozens of protesters captured by Venezuelan security forces and sent to military courts under dubious circumstances, since a wave of almost daily street protests began in April against President Nicolas Maduro, leaving 80 dead.

His prosecution has been plagued with irregularities, and violations of due process, that appear to be common in Venezuela’s military courts.

Arrested in May

Ramírez’s nightmarish journey through Venezuela’s military justice system started on May 15, when he was arrested near his apartment in Merida.

According to Rafael Mora, a student activist who witnessed the detention, Ramírez was headed to a protest on one of the city’s main avenues when a group of around 15 policemen on motorcycles approached him and the group of people he was walking with.

“The cops got off their motorcycles and started to point their guns at people” said Mora, who studies with Ramirez at the University of Los Andes. “The crowd dispersed, but our colleague (Ramírez) stayed at the spot because he hadn’t committed any crimes.”

Ramírez, known to his friends as “Pancho," has led dozens of student protests.

On three occasions he staged hunger strikes to demand better funding for his state-run university. When former President Hugo Chavez was secretly dying from cancer in 2013, Ramirez joined a group of protesters who chained themselves to the gates of the Supreme Court in Caracas to demand more transparency about his health from Venezuela’s government.

Mora believes that this type of activity made Ramírez a target for local politicians, who have struggled to contain protests in Merida.

“He’s a natural leader” says Mora, who has replaced Ramirez as the spokesman for Movimiento 13, a group of activists at the University of Los Andes. “The (Merida) stae governor has tried to implicate him in the death of some policemen who died in the 2014 protests, but he never had any proof to back it up.”

After being detained on May 15, Ramirez was taken to a police station where he was allowed a brief visit from his parents. Then he was transferred to a National Guard base, where communication with his family was cut off.

Moved to another city

Two days later, on May 17, Ramírez was put on a military flight to Barquisimeto, a city about 200 miles away. He was given a brief phone call upon arrival, and managed to get through to his girlfriend, Adelmina D’Ambrosio.

“He told me that we had half an hour to get him a lawyer,” D’Ambrosio recalled. Ramírez was about to be appear at a military court in a city where he didn’t know anyone.

“It was scary,” his girlfriend said. “But he asked me to stay strong."

It used to be rare for civilians to be taken military courts in Venezuela, but the practice has become increasingly common since the anti-government protests began.

Lawyers say that the use of military courts is a sign that the government is losing its grip over the civil justice system. Venezuela’s attorney general, once a staunch loyalist of the ruling party, split with the Maduro administration over a ruling that stripped the National Assembly of its powers at the end of March. Now, her prosecutors are refusing to seek jail time for youths arrested during protests.

“So, the government is taking detainees to military courts,” says Gonzalo Himiob, from the Penal Forum, a Venezuelan group that defends political prisoners.

Accused of treason

According to the Penal Forum, Venezuelan security forces have presented 388 civilians at military courts between early April. More than 260 of these detainees where imprisoned while they are being investigated for military crimes.

“Treason is the most common crime they are charged with,” says Himiob. “And that can carry a penalty of up to thirty years in prison.”

Lawyers say it's a system whre the government can easily control outcomes. Judges are picked by the Ministry of Defense, and prosecutors are low ranking officials who are unlikely to make independent decisions.

Carlos Ramírez entered his hearing at a military court on May 17 with a military officer as his defense attorney. His girlfriend reacted quickly to his surprise phone call and found two lawyers from the Penal Forum who agreed to defend him. But the judge refused to delay the proceedings to give them time to be present.

“We weren’t allowed into the hearing,” says Troconez, who coordinates several cases for Penal Forum in Barquisimeto. “After it was done we had to file a complaint so that we could be appointed as his attorneys.”

Denied documents

But that wasn’t the only problem. Ramírez’s lawyers were not allowed to see the police statement accusing him of treason, nor any other court documents related to his case.

“All we know about (the police declaration) is from what he heard during the hearing,” says Troconez. “There is no legal reason for us to be denied access to those documents.”

According to Ali Daniels, a Venezuelan legal analyst, these types of obstacles have become common in military courts as a form of intimidation.

“The message they want to give you is that everything there works differently than in civilian courts,” Daniels said. “They want each step to be so difficult, that you eventually give up.”

Lilia Camejo, a criminal defense lawyer says that she had a similar experience at a military court in Caracas.

Camejo had to wait for more than 10 days for a military judge to grant her a certificate that said she represented Sergio Contreras, a protester who was arrested and imprisoned on May 10. Without that document, Camejo was not allowed to visit her client, who is currently in a military prison.

“Everything in those courts works differently” said Camejo, who was not allowed to keep copies of court documents, related to her client's case. “They don’t let you go into hearings with your phone, and when they allow you to see the documents, it's in a room where a soldier stands next to you.”

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Facing 30 year sentence

In Ramírez’s case there were even more violations of due process. The student disappeared for three weeks after his first hearing on May 17. His family only found out about his whereabouts on June 5, when an anonymous caller informed them that he was being held at the Fenix military prison in Barquisimeto.

Troconez says that Ramírez’s judge had initially ordered for him to be sent to a prison in the central state of Guarico. But the family soon realized he wasn’t held there, and began a desperate search to find their son. For 18 days, they got no information from officials on the student’s whereabouts, despite multiple requests.

“We filed a petition with his judge, stating that we had no information on his whereabouts,” Troconez said. “But the judge failed to launch any investigation into the matter.”

Now, Ramirez spends his days in isolation. Officials at the Fenix prison have told the family that he will not be allowed any contact with the outside world for his first 30 days at that facility. And that continues to hamper his defense, as his second hearing with a military judge approaches.

“It’s another violation,” Troconez said. “We have a constitutional right called due process, that includes the right of prisoners to see their lawyers and have as much technical assistance as they require.”

The most likely outcome now, according to Troconez, is for Ramírez to be formally charged with treason at his second hearing. If the judge decides to proceed with the case, Ramírez will spend seven or eight months in prison as he awaits trial. If found guilty of treason, he could be sentenced to up to thirty years in prison.

Interior Minister Nestor Reverol has accused Ramirez of being a terrorist on TV, and said that he was involved in the death of two government employees during a protest in April. But Troconez says those charges were not brought up at his hearing.

Ramírez’s family meanwhile, continues to push for the student’s freedom by taking his story to the local press, and by talking about his case at opposition rallies.

Though the military justice system appears to be biased against activists like Ramírez, the family is hoping that eventually the government and opposition will negotiate a way out of the contry’s political crisis, that includes freeing political prisoners.

“Maduro will need a very large prison if he wants to jail everyone who disagrees with him,” says Ramirez’s mother, Alis Flores.

Ramírez hasn’t been forgotten by Merida’s university community either. Activists from his Movimiento 13 movement have spray painted dozens of walls in the city with red graffitis demanding his liberation. Students bear signs demanding “Pancho’s” freedom during anti government marches that take place in Merida several times a week.

Flores says that she appreciates the support, because it makes her realize that she is “not alone” in the struggle to liberate her son. She’s moved to Merida to be close to the rest of the family, suspending her job as a merchant and pastry maker in a nearby city.

“I used to disagree with my son’s involvement in politics but now I understand him,” Flores said. “I want him to know that we’re here to defend him, and to fight for his ideals.”

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