San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Controversial Venezuelan human rights case heard in Costa Rica

Leopoldo López told the seven judges of the Inter-American Human Rights Court in San José on Tuesday the same story he’s been telling the world since 2008.

“I was a government employee and public servant of Venezuela until 2008, when I was excluded and disqualified by the state of Venezuela from continuing a career as a public servant,” he told the judges. “I was disqualified without explanation and for reasons unfounded. Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to defend myself against the facts presented against me.”

At the height of his political career in 2008, the handsome, 39-year old Harvard educated politician had made a name for himself in Venezuela for his charisma, transparent policies, crime reduction rates and poverty eradication in the Chacao municipality of Caracas.

After narrowly winning the mayoral seat of Chacao in 2000, López won re-election in 2004 with 81 percent of the vote and held a 92 percent approval rating by the end of his term in 2008. In 2008, the World Mayor Project ranked him as the world’s 3rd best mayor.

That same year, López announced he would run for mayor of Caracas. However, when he tried to register as a mayoral candidate early in the year, he found he had been disqualified “politically” by the state’s Comptroller’s Office.

“The constitution of the Republic of Venezuela is very clear in article 42 and article 65, and establishes very clearly that disqualification requires a stated condition,” López said. “That condition is that only a conviction of a crime can result in disqualification. If there is not a conviction, according to the constitution of Venezuela, there cannot be a disqualification.”

López, who has never been convicted of a crime, was the first witness to take the stand Tuesday in the first day of a two-day hearing. His case against the government of Venezuela is the first time in court history that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has presented a case that accuses an Organization of American States (OAS) member state of violating Article 23 of the commission’s charter, which regulates the exercise of political rights.

The first time the case was heard before the IACHR on March 24, 2009, the commission concluded months later that “Venezuela is responsible for the violation of the right to participate in government … on having imposed a disqualification from holding public office on Mr. Leopoldo López.” The court also ruled to “adopt the measures necessary to restore the right to participate in government of Mr. Leopoldo López Mendoza.”

The Venezuelan government appealed that ruling, and the case wound up this week before the Inter-American Human Rights Court.

Venezuela’s defense team focused on López’s employment as an economist with the state-owned oil company PVDSA in the late 1990s. The defense team asked López several questions about funds donated to PVDSA during his time with the company.

“The donation was approved by the board of directors of the company, was used to execute projects approved by the board of the directors, was approved by the Comptroller’s Office of Venezuela and was audited to assure that it was appropriately incorporated in the company’s budget,” López responded.

The defense team asked several questions about the funding of PVDSA and often interrupted López’s responses.

López responded by saying that he was one of hundreds of potential political candidates disqualified from running for public office in Venezuela in 2008, and that the group of disqualified people has since grown larger.

“We are hundreds. There are hundreds of Venezuelans that are in this same situation,” he said. “In 2008, there were 266 Venezuelans that were in this same situation of disqualification. Many of them were regional candidates. Several of them were expected to be elected in their states. I wasn’t the only one that was disqualified under these circumstances. As of today, there are 575 Venezuelans that are politically disqualified without being subjected to a judicial process.”

At the time of his disqualification, López was expected to challenge a member of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s United Socialist Party for the mayoral seat in Caracas. A 2008 Keller & Associates poll showed that in a hypothetical presidential contest, López outpolled Chavez 43 percent to 41 percent, the only time during Chavez’s 12-year presidency that he has been on the losing end of a poll.

López has reportedly dodged several kidnapping and assassination attempts in the last 10 years. 

The court will announce its ruling in May or June.

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