Venezuelan Judge Who Sentenced López Named Top Public Defender

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde

Venezuela’s outgoing National Assembly, still dominated by the Socialist Party (PSUV), has sworn in Judge Susana Virginia Barreiros Rodríguez as the new General Public Defender. Barreiros presided over the trial of Leopoldo López and for his alleged role in the February 2014 opposition protests and gave him the maximum sentence of almost 14 years in prison.

The president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, said that Barreiros had shown “extraordinary courage in the face of pressures, including death threats against her and her family.”

The naming is in line with what we have seen before in which an official who takes controversial actions in favor of the government and is singled out by the international community as human rights violators, is given a promotion.

In April of this year, retired military official Gustvo Enrique Gonazalez López, a month after being named on the list of officials sanctioned by the United States, was named Minister of Interior and Justice. Judge Katherine Harrington, also on the list of US sanctions, was named Vice Minister of Penal Investigation.

On that occasion, President Nicholas Maduro said the moves were “to demonstrate to the world that here we have Venezuelan professionals that are passionate about their Nation and that no threats from the Empire” will stop them.

The post of General Public Defender is selected by an absolute majority (2/3) of the National Assembly. The new opposition dominated Assembly could presumably designate a new person for the post. However, Cabello has also announced that in the remaining parliamentary sessions of this year, the Chavista majority will push for a new “Partial Reform of the Organic Law of Public Defense” which, according to Cabello, will protect the General Public Defender “from being dismissed without a justified cause.”

Opposition leaders reacted strongly to Barreiros appointment. Carlos Vecchio, of Leopoldo Lopez’s party Voluntad Popular said that her designation is further evidence that López is a political prisoner. Primero Justicia’s Julio Borges said that any actions taken these last weeks by the current Assembly would be overruled by the incoming Assembly in January.

Human rights NGO Programa Venezolano de Educación Acción en Derechos Humanos, PROVEA, issued a press release criticizing the designation of Barreiros. According to the organization, “the appointment of Barreiros is a new step in the instrumentalization of justice for political aims.” PROVEA also recalled that the judge was responsible, not only for the sentence against Lopez, but also for similar jail sentences against young student leaders arrested during the February 2914 protests, “in trails during which denunciations of torture, obstacles to due process, and violations of the rights of the defenders were dismissed by the court.”

The General Public Defender is a different office form that of the Peoples Defender (Ombudsperson). Whereas the latter is in charge of defending citizens against human rights violations, the first is an independent body in charge of assigning public attorneys.