The lesser known Sakharov winners languishing in prison in Venezuela
A participant in a opposition march in Caracas, on February 12, 2014. (Photo: Santi Donaire/EFE)
Caracas, Dec 12 (efe-epa).- Encircling one of the hills of the rough terrain of Caracas rose, in the 1950s, El Helicoide, a futuristic building that represented, through its originality, the avant-garde architecture of America. History and chance cut short the life of this deceptive building, which coils around the massive axis of the hill and hides in its belly more stones than space.
From being a symbol of the dreams of that prosperous Venezuela it went on to become a setting for the worst nightmares and continues to be until today, converted into the headquarters and prison of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebin), the dreaded political police.
In this building are being held the four least famous 2017 Sakharov Prize winners.
Out of the eight Venezuelan awarded the 2017 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which the European Parliament will hand over in Strasbourg on December 13, Andrea Gonzalez, Lorent Saleh, Daniel Ceballos and Alfredo Ramos, are still being held without a trial.
A Tinerfeña in Sebin
Thirty-one year old Tinerfeña Andrea Gonzalez has been living on the premises of El Helicoide since August 17, 2015.
Born in Venezuela, Andrea emigrated to Canary Islands, Spain, as an adolescent and returned to her country seven years ago for love, without ever imagining that she would end up in prison.
"When Andrea returned to Venezuela, the situation was already very bad and she was not used to such a horrible situation for the people. It left her deeply affected: the street children, the people in the nursing homes, the hospitals," her sister Alejandra explains to EFE.
What Andrea saw stirred her conscience and led her to take part in various volunteer activities with children and the elderly and like this she came into contact with people involved in politics, with whom she began to take part in protests against the government.
Among the friends she made was Liana Hergueta, killed and dismembered shortly after, in a crime to which confessed, among others, Rafael Perez Venta, whom they had known as an alleged member of the opposition Popular Will party.
With the death of her friend, the horror had only just begun for Andrea. One Monday, members of Sebin come looking for her at her house and take her to El Helicoide to testify. There, they ask her to call her boyfriend, Dany Abreu, also to come and testify, and over two years and three months later, the couple continues to be held there, always in different cells.
Andrea, Dany and another two people had been accused by Perez Venta of having offered him $500,000 to kill the daughter of Diosdado Cabello, who was then speaker of the parliament and continues to be one of the strongmen of Chavismo.
"It was vox populi that he collaborates with the government and, as it did not suit the government to say that that murderer was in their ranks, they made him record several videos which incriminate" Andrea, her boyfriend and other people, the young woman's lawyer, Joel Garcia, tells EFE.
"The evidence is nothing more than a 'Google Map' showing the residential area where Diosdado Cabello lives, Perez Venta statements and nothing more," says Garcia, after enumerating the series of due process violations that have occurred in this case.
26 months in The Tomb
Plaza Venezuela is the geographic center of Caracas. Through its streets, around the fountain that presides over this space and the landscaped squares, pass thousands of vehicles and people every day.
Underground, in one of the corners of the square and oblivious to the activity above, some of the most penalized inmates of the country await a trial that never takes place in the basements of another premises of Sebin.
In one of the lower levels of the building, known as The Tomb, student activist Lorent Saleh spent 26 months.
"The Tomb is in Basement 5, in what were the vaults of a bank," says Yamile Saleh, Lorent's mother, who narrates the conditions of her son's detention before he was moved to El Helicoide.
"The air conditioner turned up very high so that they couldn't even get out of bed. They are 2x3 cells with a concrete bed. Between the bars of the cell there was a hole through which they passed the food. They had a bell to be taken to the bathroom. Lorent was always guarded and watched through the cameras and microphones.
Born on July 22, 1988, Lorent Saleh is, since he was 19 years, a vehement and passionate critic of the ruling Chavismo in Venezuela.
In 2011, the authorities found in his car slingshots to be used against the law enforcement forces during the protests and imposed a restriction on his movement, which he violated to move to Colombia, where he campaigned against the Venezuelan government.
State media and officials accused him of making paramilitary plans against Nicolas Maduro's government. To give more strength to their claims, they used photographs of him with soldiers and a meticulously edited video, in which he seemed to be boasting of having the capacity to carry out acts of terrorism.
The Colombian government expelled him in September 2014 along with Gabriel Valles, another student, handing both of them over to the Sebin on the Simon Bolivar bridge that connects the two countries.
"Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who is now a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, handed him over without an arrest warrant; simply because of a verbal agreement he was handed over," Yamile Saleh said.
More than three years later, the preliminary hearing of the trial against Lorent has been postponed more than 40 times. The reason for these postponements - common in Venezuela in all cases related to politics - is, according to his family, the triviality of the charges that have nothing to do with the "media accusations" of terrorism.
Despite the audiovisual material with which the government explained his arrest, the charges against Saleh are for violating the ban on leaving the state of Carabobo, where he was living with his family, and falsifying identity documents while being employed at the aliens' registration service, a job which, his family insists, he never had.
"If they are going to try him for those things, he would not have to spend more than six months in prison," and he has been in prison for over three years, his uncle, Wadir Khoury, says.
After spending two and a half years in solitary confinement and trying to commit suicide twice, Lorent now lives together with other prisoners and his mental condition has improved. "Now I am a bit more peaceful - his mother says - I don't get as upset as at that time. It was a death sentence because he did not even know the time, nor what day it was..."
"Look for him in El Helicoide"
Thirteen opposition mayors have been dismissed, disqualified and sentenced to prison in the last few years in Venezuela. Three of them have been awarded the Sakharov Prize, most notably Caracas' Antonio Ledezma, who managed to escape house arrest in the middle of November and now lives in exile in Spain.
Still behind bars are the other recipients, Daniel Ceballos and Alfredo Ramos, caught by Sebin after a court ruling against them for supporting protests in 2014 and 2017 in their respective jurisdictions.
Daniel Ceballos, 33, a member of the Popular Will party, was arrested on March 19, 2014, in Caracas on charges of "rebellion" while serving as the mayor of San Cristobal in western Venezuela.
"We were in a meeting room. Some people arrived, allegedly officials because they had no identification, sporting hoods and long arms and said that they had to take him into custody," his lawyer, Ana Leonor Acosta, recalls.
"Look for him in El Helicoide," said one of the men when she asked for the arrest warrant.
The arrest that was carried out then had been announced weeks before by Maduro, who threatened Ceballos publicly on several occasions.
"His time will come," Maduro warned on one occasion, when he called Ceballos "insolent" and threatened to put him in a cell "colder" than that of his "fascist chief" in reference to Leopoldo Lopez, leader of Popular Will and another Sakharov Prize laureate, who was in prison at that time and is now under house arrest.
"There begins the persecution until this moment, when he remains isolated, abducted," Ceballos' mother, Nancy Morales tells EFE.
Once in Sebin's custody, the Supreme Court dismissed Ceballos and sentenced him to 12 months in prison - which he completed in the Ramo Verde military prison - for disobeying a court order ordering him to remove barricades set up during street protests.
From Ramo Verde, and with the trial for "rebellion" still pending, he has been moved from a common jail to house arrest to a cell in El Helicoide, where he has been in isolation for two months, without sunlight or visits in a 2x3 meter cell.
From the office in the town hall to the cell in El Helicoide, in an airplane
Alfred Ramos, 62, was removed by the Supreme Court as the mayor of the western Iribarren municipality in a process similar to that of Ceballos.
Ramos had refused to appear in a court he did not recognize on July 28, 2017, and continued to work in the office of the town hall while the trial against him was conducted.
Before the court announced its verdict against him, a group of masked men from Sebin, carrying long arms, entered the consistory to take the mayor, who was surrounded by employees, family member and supporters, all of them singing the national anthem, in an attempt to prevent his arrest. A video shot with a mobile phone shows those tense and emotional scenes.
The ex-mayor was taken by plane to El Helicoide, where he has to spend 15 months in detention, according to the Supreme Court's ruling.
Lawyer Acosta, who is also representing him, warns that "mayor Ramos' life is at risk because he does not have adequate attention."
"He's diagnosed with severe, chronic hypertension. He is receiving his medicines but apparently the medicines are not having the effect they should have," one of his daughters, Natasha, explains to EFE.
"Three different doctors have already gone to examine him," and the three "ordered some tests for him to be able to change his treatment and stabilize his hypertension," but the Sebin has not made the necessary move of taking him to a hospital.
The situation of this old trade unionist worsened in December after he felt severe pain in his sides. The doctor who examined him diagnosed him with intercostal neuritis.
By Marcel Gascón Barberá
Translated by Parul Dua
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