Political Prisoners Incommunicado amid COVID-19 Crisis in Venezuela

Political Prisoners Incommunicado amid COVID-19 Crisis in Venezuela

By Diálogo
July 13, 2020

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The Venezuelan nongovernmental organization (NGO) Foro Penal revealed that there were 451 political prisoners detained in police and intelligence facilities of Venezuela as of the first week of June.

This represents a 35 percent increase over the number of prisoners of conscience recorded by the same organization in March, showing that the political conflict has not ceased in Venezuela, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Organization of American States (OAS) takes Foro Penal’s figures as a reference, according to Luis Almagro, OAS secretary general. Gonzalo Himiob, a lawyer and representative of the NGO, said that some of the reasons for the arrests are discontent over public utility failures, such as electricity and drinking water, as well as gas shortages. Likewise, many people have been imprisoned as a result of procedures from the Military Counterintelligence General Directorate (DGCIM, in Spanish). Among the detained are three Bolivarian National Guard (GNB, in Spanish) captains, who were allegedly involved in a failed attempt to take over a post of that component in Puerto Morocha, Miranda state, in mid-April.

DGCIM agents have deprived civilians and service members of their liberty, with practices that Himiob said can be considered as forced disappearances, since the means of communications of detainees are cut off for weeks, with authorities withholding information about their whereabouts to lawyers and family members.

“Officially, they never give you an answer. You go [to the DGCIM] and they tell you that the person you are looking for is not there. This is very common at the DGCIM. That’s why we talk about forced disappearances,” he said.

Himiob said that detainees are oftentimes not the subject of an investigation, but rather a close family member. This means that actions by intelligence agents serve as a form of pressure, to force the person being sought after to surrender. For example, a case reported in early 2020 involved the arrest of three relatives of GNB Captain Anyelo Heredia, who managed to escape from the Ramo Verde prison in late 2019, after being imprisoned for three years.

Prisoners lacking space

In addition to a lack of communication with the outside world, prisoners of conscience in Venezuela are held in overcrowded facilities.

An April report by Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window to Freedom, UVL in Spanish), a Venezuelan NGO dedicated to defending prisoners’ human rights, reveals that the cells of the DGCIM headquarters in Caracas held about 100 people in March. The facilities have a capacity to accommodate 52 inmates. Overcrowding, said UVL director Carlos Nieto Palma, has reached 92 percent.

Nieto said that the decision to send a detainee to a DGCIM or a Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN, in Spanish) cell is clearly political.

“There is no established protocol to make the decision. If you are a service member, the balance will tip toward the DGCIM, as most people held there are active or former service members,” he said.

However, Nieto added that at the time the report was being completed, people like Juan José Márquez, a civilian and uncle of Venezuelan Interim President Juan Guaidó, were held at the DGCIM. Márquez was detained on February 11, 2020, when he arrived at the Caracas airport, accused of carrying explosives in his baggage. On June 2, he was put under house arrest.

The inmate population has increased at the SEBIN facilities as well. This comes after several months when it seemed that the overcrowding problem had been solved. In March, the UVL report counted 137 detainees.

Nieto said that neither United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet nor representatives from her office have been able to access the DGCIM and SEBIN detention centers so far. He added that inmates are held incommunicado, under the pretext that it is a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The UVL report was sent to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the U.N. Committee against Torture, and members of Bachelet’s office in Caracas.