- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A key opposition leader jailed for more than a month by Venezuela’s protest-embattled government says leaders from across Latin America are engaged in a “shameful silence” toward human rights abuses being carried by “paramilitary groups” loyal to Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro.

The U.S. and Canada-backed Organization of American States is also ignoring what Leopoldo Lopez, a former district mayor in Caracas detained since Feb. 18 on “arson and conspiracy” charges, described as a Maduro government crackdown on protestors and intimidation campaign against opposition leaders.

“The [OAS], which represents nations in the Western Hemisphere, has abstained from any real leadership on the current crisis of human rights and the looming specter of a failed state, even though it was formed precisely to address issues like these,” Mr. Lopez wrote in an op-ed published in Tuesday’s New York Times.

“We need real engagement from the international community, particularly in Latin America,” he wrote. “The outspoken response from human rights organizations is in sharp contrast to the shameful silence from many of Venezuela’s neighbors in Latin America.”

“Since student protests began on Feb. 4, more than 1,500 protesters have been detained, more than 30 have been killed, and more than 50 people have reported that they were tortured while in police custody,” Mr. Lopez wrote. “What started as a peaceful march against crime on a university campus has exposed the depth of this government’s criminalization of dissent.”

Amnesty International has said the charges against Mr. Lopez “smack of a politically motivated attempt to silence dissent.” The former mayor warned in his op-ed — which he said was written from the “Ramo Verde military prison outside Caracas” — that the silence of regional leaders will only embolden the Maduro government to arrest more opposition leaders.

“Soon, more opposition mayors,” he wrote, “will join me behind bars.”

“But we will not stay silent,” Mr. Lopez wrote. “Some believe that speaking out only antagonizes the ruling party — inviting Mr. Maduro to move more quickly to strip away rights — and provides a convenient distraction from the economic and social ruin that is taking place. In my view, this path is akin to a victim of abuse remaining silent for fear of inviting more punishment.”

Recent weeks have seen the biggest opposition protests yet against Mr. Maduro, who was narrowly elected to the presidency last April. The former bus driver and union activist was a protege of now-deceased Venezuelan President and leftist-icon Hugo Chavez.

Mr. Maduro continues to enjoy widespread support from Chavez followers — known as “Chavistas” — who’ve countered the recent opposition rallies in Caracas with massive pro-government demonstrations of their own.

But Mr. Maduro has publicly denied supporting armed paramilitaries among the Chavistas, and he insists that the opposition protests are part of a coup d’etat plot being engineered against him by the United States and its closest allies in the region — including Colombia.

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