- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

CARACAS, VENEZUELA (AP) - A Venezuelan court on Friday sentenced nine former police officials to as long as 30 years in prison for the killings of demonstrators during street protests that led up to the failed 2002 coup against President Hugo Chavez.

Former Caracas police chief Henry Vivas, deputy chief Lazaro Forero and city public safety director Ivan Simonovis were sentenced to 30-year terms, the Attorney General’s Office said. It said they were convicted of being accomplices to murder in the killings of two pro-government demonstrators, and accomplices in the attempted murder of two others and the wounding of a dozen people.

Six rank-and-file officers were sentenced to 17-year and 30-year terms for “complicity” to murder in the killings and other crimes, prosecutors said in a statement.

Both allies and adversaries of Chavez were among 19 killed on April 11, 2002, as an opposition march led by police approached a pro-Chavez demonstration in Caracas.

The violence preceded a short-lived coup in which Chavez was ousted by dissident military officers. He returned to power two days later with the help of loyalist generals and street protests by supporters.

Government foes blame the violence on National Guard troops and Chavez supporters who were filmed shooting from a bridge. Chavez backers say the police were responsible.

Defense lawyer Jose Luis Tamayo condemned the sentence, calling it “a trophy for President Chavez.”

“They’ve convicted a big group of Venezuelan citizens here without proof,” said Tamayo, who said prosecutors used photographs of several officers holding guns rather than any forensic evidence linking them to the killings.

He said prosecutors “didn’t even prove the metropolitan police’s weapons were fired,” and that the judge exercised a “Nazi interpretation” of the evidence.

Lawyer Antonio Molina, who represents some of the government supporters who were killed, said: “This isn’t political vengeance as they’ve wanted to sell it.”

He said the sentence has “done justice” and that police had been acting as the “armed wing” of government opponents who tried to topple Chavez.

The Caracas city government and police force were led by Chavez opponents at the time of the coup.

Relatives of the ex-policemen _ some teary-eyed and angry _ condemned the decision outside the courthouse in north-central Aragua state. Some accused Chavez’s government of using the legal system to frame opponents.

“I expected this sort of sentence because this is a political trial,” Nubia Vivas, a sister of the ex-police chief, told reporters.

Yesenia Fuentes, a member of the pro-government Association of April 11 Victims, said she was pleased with the sentence. “It set a precedent: there won’t be a police officer who messes with a Venezuelan citizen and doesn’t go to jail,” she said.

One police officer who had originally faced charges, Rafael Neazoa, was acquitted by the jury, prosecutors said. Another, Ramon Zapata, was sentenced to three years for covering up police involvement and will go free because he has already spent six years in jail, the Attorney General’s Office said.

Liliana Ortega, director of the Venezuelan human rights watchdog group Cofavic, said the sentence contributes to “impunity because one of the most serious problems we’ve seen concretely in this case is that there have been serious deviations from due process.”

The sentence was handed down after a lengthy legal process and delays by prosecutors and the judge in reviewing evidence and testimony. The police officers were detained six years ago, and the three high-ranking officials have been jailed for the past four years.

In a related case, another court considered accusations against four government supporters who were filmed and photographed firing from the bridge near the presidential palace. They were jailed for more than a year, but were absolved and freed in 2003. The government declared them heroes.

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