[FILE PHOTO] President Nicolas Maduro
Two Venezuelan firefighters risk 20 years of prison for publishing a video in which they jokingly referred to a donkey as President Nicolas Maduro, a human rights organization said on Monday.
Ricardo Prieto, 41, and Carlos Varon, 45, are accused of “inciting aggravated hatred” in the country after a donkey was videoed being led around a fire station in the western state of Merida while a man filming jokes about Maduro being on an inspection.
Maduro and his government have been widely criticized for mismanagement and blamed for the economic crisis that has spiraled out of control, with inflation predicted by the International Monetary Fund to reach one million percent this year.
Fernando Cermeno from the Foro Penal rights group told AFP the pair were arrested on Wednesday.
According to Foro Penal, the accusation is based on a 2017 anti-hate law approved by the controversial regime-dominated Constituent Assembly — considered illegitimate by the United States and European Union, and denounced by the opposition as an instrument to “criminalize dissent.”
The law allows for political parties to be declared illegal, media outlets to be closed and stipulates prison sentences of up to 20 years.
The Constitutional Assembly was set up by Maduro last year as Venezuela’s new parliament after he lost control of the democratically elected National Assembly, which has since been sidelined.
The Constituent Assembly’s creation was largely responsible for four months of street protests that left about 125 people dead.
A man and woman protesting a lack of food were the first to be arrested under the anti-hate law in January, Foro Penal said.
They were detained after holding a tiny demonstration that closed a boulevard in Valencia in the north.
In August, a public employee said she and her family were forcibly ejected from their government-assigned home for sharing memes mocking Venezuela’s military in a WhatsApp group chat.
Authorities have not commented on the firefighters’ case.
The video shows a woman dressed as a firefighter leading a donkey through a station while a man filming this, believed to be Prieto, addresses the donkey as “President Maduro.”
As the donkey stops in a yard to eat grass, the man quips that “it’s the only good thing we have here.”
Venezuelans are suffering from shortages of food and medicines as well as failing public services including electricity, water and transport.
According to the United Nations, around 1.6 million people have left Venezuela since 2015, an outflow straining the resources of neighboring countries.
“A prison sentence as a punishment for freedom of expression is disproportionate and unnecessary, and contrary to international human rights treaties,” said rights charity Espacio Publico.
Maduro, who jokes that opponents call him “Maburro” — a contraction of his name and “burro,” the Spanish word for donkey — has been accused of clamping down unceremoniously on dissent.