The trial of the four Venezuela Embassy Protectors began in the district court of the District of Columbia on February 11, Monday. They have been charged with “interfering with certain protective functions” of the United States (US) State Department for their occupation of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington DC in April last year. A pretrial hearing had taken place before Judge Beryl A. Howell on January 29 to decide the parameters of the case.
Kevin Zeese, Margaret Flowers, Adrienne Pine and David Paul, as part of the Embassy Protection Collective, had begun living at the Venezuelan embassy in order to protect it from occupation by the Juan Guaidó backed Venezuelan opposition forces. Supported by the US, Guaidó had been orchestrating a coup d’etat against democratically elected Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.
This situation was brought on due to the Venezuelan diplomatic mission to the United States being forced to leave the country in April 2019. The members of the Embassy Protection Collective resisting this move began occupying and protecting the embassy with authorization from the Venezuelan government.
In January 2019, the US government under president Donald Trump recognized Guaidó as the “legitimate president” of Venezuela after he declared himself as the interim president. Since then, the US has also recognized his diplomatic representative in the country, Carlos Vecchio, who wanted to take over the embassy installation.
Thirty-seven days after the protectors began living in the embassy ,in May the police illegally broke in and arrested the four members of the Embassy Protection Collective.
Condemning the arrest of the activists, Venezuelan foreign minister Jorge Arreaza tweeted, “Today our diplomatic property in Washington was taken and invaded by a police operation without precedents. They disrespected their obligations of the Vienna Convention and violated the human rights of the activists that have protected our embassy with our authorization.”
As per the Vienna Convention, the premises of a foreign mission are “inviolable,” and “the agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.” Even if the diplomatic relations between two countries are broken off, article 45 of the Convention says, “The receiving State must, even in case of armed conflict, respect and protect the premises of the mission, together with its property and archives.”
Despite this, the four protectors, whose entry was permitted by the Venezuelan head of mission, are facing trial in a case which the Trump administration’s prosecutors are desperately trying to fix.
The US government wants the trial to be restricted to only three points – that the four protectors were in the embassy, that they were served an eviction notice by the police, and that they refused to leave.
On February 4, Judge Howell issued her ruling on what information may the jurors be told during the trial. While granting most of the government’s requests, she claimed that additional information could confuse the jurors.
The only defense the judge has left for the defendants is to allow them to say in front of the jurors that they believe Maduro is the president, and thus they did not knowingly and willfully break the law. They are not allowed to state that Maduro is in fact the president ofVenezuela. Howell said that the court had to follow the legal precedent and accept the decision of the US president regarding who is the leader of a foreign country.
On the second day of the trial, as reported by the Embassy Protection Collective, the most important development was that the judge overruled “the state’s objection to the defense team’s requested exhibits, which included tweets from Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza and Venezuelan Vice Minister for North America Carlos Ron.”
Further, as per the Collective, on the second day of trial, “The defense also attempted to establish the state “requesting” the defendants to leave the building was distinct from an “order” that would need to be obeyed. This appeared to be the defense’s attempt to weaken the state’s argument that the defendants had violated the trespass notice and “interfered with certain protective functions” the State Department is required to perform for all countries’ diplomatic properties in the United States. … The case agent testified the trespass notice was not on any official letterhead with a signature or seal.”
Guaidó, who the US government has recognized to be the ‘president of Venezuela’, has no standing or credibility in his own country. He was welcomed in Washington as he attended Trump’s State of the Union address last week, however, when he returned home, he was met with jeers and boos. He also lost his post as the president of the National Assembly of Venezuela after the internal elections on January 5. He refused to recognize the results.