Venezuelan Embassy Activists Avoid Jail With Plea Bargain
WASHINGTON – A plea bargain with federal prosecutors is allowing four activists to avoid jail time after they occupied the Venezuelan Embassy in April and May.
The four were part of a group that stayed in the embassy in Washington, D.C. for a month to demonstrate their support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
The socialist president was facing widespread turbulence and opposition as Venezuela’s economy collapsed, plunging the country into rioting and military crackdowns.
The four arrested demonstrators, Margaret Flowers, Adrienne Pine, David Paul and Kevin Zeese, were forcibly removed from the embassy in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood by police on May 16, 2019. About 50 demonstrators were staying at the embassy at various times during the month-long standoff.
Police moved in at the request of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who the U.S. government recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader after a contested election.
The four arrested protesters were charged with misdemeanor interference with State Department diplomatic protective functions.
Their attorney argued at trial that they had permission from the embassy staff to be in the building.
They faced up to a year in jail but the trial in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ended with a hung jury.
Rather than seek a new trial, Justice Department prosecutors offered them a plea bargain.
Last week, they pleaded guilty to crowding, obstructing or incommoding. They received suspended sentences of 30 days in jail.
U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey released them on their own recognizance on a condition that they stay away from the Venezuelan embassy and nine other diplomatic properties. They also were ordered to stay away from embassy officials and to seek court approval to travel internationally.
A federal prosecutor asked that they be forced to give up their passports. However, their defense attorneys argued successfully they should be allowed to keep them because they are not a flight risk.
The four defendants are a medical doctor, a lawyer, an anthropology professor and the holder of a master’s degree.
“These are not people who are afraid of the court system,” said court-appointed federal public defender David Bos.
The occupation of the embassy started when Maduro invited the liberal activist group Code Pink to “protect” the building. Code Pink members describe themselves as peace activists.
Their legal and political supporters include the New York-based advocacy group Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo May 12 accusing the Secret Service of violating its own mandate to protect foreign embassies.
Instead of protecting the Venezuelan Embassy, the Secret Service was “permitting violent opposition demonstrators to physically attack the Embassy, assault the peaceful invitees and prevent them from entering the Embassy with supplies of food and water,” the letter says. “Video footage discloses multiple and on-going episodes of mob violence, including physical assaults, theft of food supplies, and the hurling of racist, sexist and homophobic slurs at those expressing to support the peace activists inside the Embassy.”
The embassy standoff was one of many disputes between the United States and Venezuela since Maduro took over the country’s leadership in 2013. Tensions increased last year when Maduro refused to relinquish the presidency after an election the U.S. State Department says was won by his political opponent.
In its latest move to punish Maduro, the U.S. government last week slapped new sanctions on four companies that operate in Venezuela’s oil industry.
“The illegitimate Maduro regime has enlisted the help of maritime companies and their vessels to continue the exploitation of Venezuela’s natural resources for the regime’s profit,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “The United States will continue to target those who support this corrupt regime and contribute to the suffering of the Venezuelan people.”
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