Monday, April 13, 2009

Oaxaca: David Venegas Verdict Delayed... Again

No Day in Court; Judge Will Call Venegas' Lawyer with Verdict

For the second week in a row, Oaxacan judge Amado Chiñas Fuentes delayed Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) adviser David Venegas' verdict in what Oaxaca commentator Nancy Davies referred to as "harassment by delay." In a statement issued after the first postponement, Venegas' collective VOCAL wrote, "It is clear to us that the reason for the delay is to keep David Venegas tied up in the proceedings, thereby putting constraints on his full participation in the social movement. This is not the first case in which the tactic has been used. In fact, the practice of delays in sentencing and the eventual pronouncement of adverse sentences after such delays has been a common practice against social activists by these prosecutors disguised as judges. Moreover, the delay could also mean that the government is trying to test the waters of movement response to an adverse sentence."

Venegas is charged with possession with intent to distribute illegal drugs, specifically cocaine and heroine. Venegas, who at the time of his arrest was a leader in the Oaxacan social movement that kicked the state government out of office for months in 2006, maintains that police kidnapped him off the street and then planted the drugs on him hours after they had brought him into custody. The government's case against Venegas is riddled with inconsistencies, to the point where at least half of the police who participated in his arrest refuse to testify against him.

A more thorough explanation of the case against Venegas is available in the earlier Narco News article "APPO Adviser David Venegas Faces Trial on April 6 for Fabricated Drug Charges."

The drug charges have been hanging over Venegas' head for two years. Police arrested Venegas on April 13, 2007, and charged him with possession with intent to distribute, sedition, conspiracy, arson, attacks on transit routes, rebellion, crimes against civil servants, dangerous attacks, and resisting arrest. Venegas beat all but the drug charge and was released on bail eleven months later on March 5, 2008.

Venegas' original hearing where his verdict and, if necessary, sentence were to be read was scheduled for April 6, 2009. After attending a morning rally that called for his charges to be dropped once and for all, Venegas entered the courtroom at 11am, the time his hearing was scheduled to begin. The court informed him that the hearing had to be postponed because he failed to arrive fifteen minutes prior to his hearing for a process called "identification." During identification, the court takes the defendant's personal data to confirm his or her identification. Venegas told Narco News that this was "a lie" used as en excuse to postpone his trial. He says that he could have failed to show at the hearing and the verdict still could have been read and considered valid, and that "moreover, I was never told about that part of the process."

The hearing was rescheduled for today, April 13, exactly two years to the day after his arrest. When Venegas arrived today, this time fifteen minutes prior to his scheduled hearing, the judge informed him that he would, yet again, postpone his verdict. This time, the judge didn't give Venegas a new hearing date. The judge declared that the dossier in the Venegas case was so large that he would need more time to read it. He told Venegas that he would call his defense attorney "within the next ten days" and inform her of the verdict.

It's worth noting that until Mexico's legal reform is fully implemented (a process that could take eight years), the legal system here is based on written, not oral, trials. This means that evidence, depositions, and signed declarations are compiled in a dossier that the judge reviews before delivering a verdict. Defendants and witnesses don't generally "take the stand," and any verbal testimony given during the trial process does not hold the same weight as the written testimony contained in the dossier.

When asked why the judge would prefer to deliver his verdict over the phone rather than during a hearing, Venegas told Narco News, "I don't know. I'd like to ask you the same question. All I know is that the judge says it's legal."

Venegas and Sosa at courthouse rallyThe answer could lie in the judge's desire to avoid further public spectacle in the case. Witnesses report that anywhere between 50-150 people showed up at a rally today in support of Venegas. During the rally, protesters blocked the street in front of the courthouse and did a street theater performance that featured clowns as politicians.

Venegas' collective, VOCAL, has also issued several statements calling for national and international supporters to flood the Oaxaca courthouse's phone lines with calls and faxes demanding that the charges against Venegas be dropped. Venegas says that the call is still in effect, and that now more than ever support is needed in his case. "I could get a decision any day now. It could be tomorrow; it could be in ten days. That's why it's important that people call or fax the judge every day until I get a verdict." According to a VOCAL communique, the number for the court building is 011 52 (951) 515-6600. The communique also states that supporters who wish to send faxes addressed to Judge Amado Chiñas Fuentes can call that number during business hours and request a fax tone ("Me da un tono de fax por favor?"). VOCAL requests that supporters also send statements of solidarity to vocal@riseup.net.

Photo: Venegas and fellow APPO organizer Orlando Sosa at a rally in support of Venegas on April 6.
Photo credit: George Salzman

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