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Venezuela's Henrique Capriles Radonski: I don't belong in jail

By Richard Brand, Miami Herald

CARACAS - On his 75th day in a windowless jail cell, Henrique Capriles Radonski, one of Venezuela's best-known politicians, insisted that he was in prison merely for opposing President Hugo Chávez.

The 32-year-old Capriles, mayor of the wealthy Caracas municipality of Baruta, stands accused of instigating a riot at the Cuban Embassy here during a coup attempt against Chávez in 2002.

''My conscience is at peace,'' he said. ``The only crimes I committed were thinking differently than the government and being from a new generation.''

Capriles spoke with The Herald last weekend at the jail of Venezuela's political police, known as DISIP.

Capriles' imprisonment stems from the chaotic events of April 11-14 in 2002, when Chávez appeared to have been forced from office by a military coup. He was quickly returned to power by loyal troops.

RALLYING AROUND

The mayor's case has become a cause célbre among Chávez's opponents, who say it proves that the leftist-populist president abuses the legal system for political ends, and that he plans to impose a Cuba-style authoritarian regime. He faces a recall vote Aug. 15.

''There is a risk that Venezuela is becoming more repressive and authoritarian,'' said Michael Shifter, policy analyst at Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. He cited the recent indictments of officers of Súmate, a civic group that helped organize the recall vote, for allegedly accepting U.S. funds for democracy-building programs.

The Caracas newspaper El Universal has identified dozens of so-called political prisoners -- ranging from students arrested at anti-Chávez rallies to opposition activists in rural areas -- and in recent days has run thumbnail profiles of prisoners on its front pages.

Chávez denies the allegation. ''We don't have political prisoners in Venezuela. We have prisoner politicians,'' he said in a recent speech.

Prosecutors say Capriles failed to control a crowd that gathered April 12, 2002, outside of the Cuban Embassy in Baruta amid rumors that members of Chávez's government had sought asylum inside during the coup. Chávez is a close ally of Cuban President Fidel Castro.

The crowd smashed cars, cut off the embassy's electricity and water, and threatened to invade it. Capriles and several aides were admitted into the embassy by Cuban diplomats during the melee.

CHARGES

In a 20-page complaint filed by prosecutor Danilo Anderson, he is charged with six crimes, including property damage, intimidation, violating international principles, and trespassing.

Capriles insists he was trying to defuse an explosive situation.

''We were calling and notifying authorities, asking for assistance,'' Capriles said. ``I talked with the people outside. I said, `This is an embassy, you cannot go inside. . . . I am in jail because I did that.'''

A videotape of that day's events taken by a news crew seems to support Capriles' claim that he tried to calm the crowd. But it also shows him asking the Cuban ambassador for proof that no Venezuelan citizens were hiding inside.

The tape is being used as evidence both by prosecutors and the defense.

Before his arrest on May 11, Capriles was seen as a rising star in Venezuela's turbulent politics.

He was the youngest speaker of Congress in Venezuelan history at age 27, and won the mayor's race in Baruta with over 60 percent of the vote.

Authorities say they have been building a case against Capriles since shortly after the 2002 disturbances, though they pressed charges only this year, as he launched his reelection campaign. Prosecutors say he is a flight risk, so he was not allowed to post bail.

It is unclear when Capriles will have his day in court. A preliminary hearing scheduled for last Tuesday was canceled.

His cell is equipped with a small television and decorated with a makeshift shrine to the Virgin Mary.

He has just finished reading a biography of Huber Matos, a former Cuban political prisoner.

''The people in high positions are persecuting me, but the people guarding me are with me,'' he said. ``It makes me optimistic about things. This country has an incredible future, more of a future than a past.''



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