October 30, 2015 / 12:30 AM / 2 years ago

Apologetic Venezuelan prosecutor says country's justice system ruled by fear

MIAMI (Reuters) - A Venezuelan state prosecutor who helped put prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez behind bars said he apologized to the jailed man’s parents by phone this week after fleeing the country to avoid pressing the government’s trumped-up case.

Former Venezuelan prosecutor Franklin Nieves speaks with Reuters in an interview in Miami, Florida, October 29, 2015. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

“I‘m ashamed. I broke up a family,” Franklin Nieves told Reuters in an hour-long interview in Miami in which he accused the Venezuelan socialist government of pressing him to use false evidence to convict Lopez.

“In Venezuela fear rules; that’s the way the law is,” he said.

Lopez, 44, was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison in September on charges stemming from his role in a wave of protests in 2014.

Nieves, 51, said he fled Oct. 19 to avoid having to handle an upcoming appeal in the Lopez case. He flew to Miami on a tourist visa via the Caribbean island of Aruba with his wife, a journalist for a state TV channel, and their two small children.

“I knew it was time to tell people the truth,” he said. “I wasn’t going to defend the indefensible.”

Antonieta Mendoza, Lopez’s mother, told Reuters she forgave Nieves because of her Catholic faith but did not trust him.

Nieves said he had begun the process of filing for political asylum in the United States but has had no contact with U.S. officials since his arrival last week.

Venezuela’s chief prosecutor this week denied her office had put pressure on officials to use false evidence in the Lopez trial.

Government leaders say Lopez incited violent street protests last year that left 43 people dead.

Opposition leaders claim Lopez’s trial is further evidence that the government of President Nicolas Maduro is corrupting the justice system to stifle dissent. In 2012, supreme court magistrate Eladio Aponte fled the country and later accused the government of manipulating the courts for political ends.

Nieves said he was ordered by his superiors last year to sign a fraudulent charging document against Lopez. “They wanted him arrested and condemned to get him out of the political game,” he said.

While he had no direct contact with the attorney general or Maduro, he said he assumed they were behind the orders. It was the first time in his 20-year judicial career that he had been told to falsify a case, he added.

He has received a mixed reception in Miami where some Venezuelan exiles say he deserves forgiveness while others say he should have resigned from the case before it went to trial.

He told no one except his father of his plans to leave, he said. Choking with emotion he said he took his father some money and two packets of cigarettes before leaving. “I gave him a kiss and I told him, ‘We’ll see each other one day,'” he said, wiping away tears.

Police raided his house after he left as well as his office and his wife’s workplace, he said.

He said he hoped his revelations would force the government to overturn Lopez’s conviction. “The appeal judges have a opportunity to make history and annul this case and free Leopoldo,” he said.

Additional reporting by Girish Gupta in Caracas; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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