El alcalde metropolitano de Caracas y opositor venezolano, Antonio Ledezma, a su llegada a Madrid. EFE/Javier López |
The flight to Europe by the former mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, uncovers one more of the 342 stories of political prisoners fleeing the government of Nicolás Maduro.
Luisa Ortega Díaz did it three months ago, in a scene as if from a movie. The former Prosecutor General, a public enemy of the government of Nicolás Maduro, fled one night in a boat, which took her through the peninsula of Paraguaná to the island of Aruba, where she then travelled to Bogotá to begin an international tour denouncing human rights violations in Venezuela.
On Friday, it was opposition leader Antonio Ledezma’s turn. He escaped from house arrest in Caracas and went alone and by land to the Simón Bolívar International Bridge. He crossed to the Colombian municipality of Villa del Rosario, travelled to Bogotá, and boarded a flight at the El Dorado Airport to Madrid, Spain.
Ledezma, who was the mayor of Caracas for two terms (2008-2015), was taken into custody without an arrest warrant on February 19, 2015, by agents of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN). He was later accused by Maduro of participating in Operation Jericho, an alleged effort to overthrow the Venezuelan government. They held him prisoner for four months in the Ramo Verde military prison, where he was then transferred to house arrest due to medical complications.
The former mayor joins the ranks of those like Daniel Ceballos, the dismissed mayor of the San Cristóbal municipality (Táchira), and Leopoldo López (arrested in 2014 and sentenced in 2015 to 14 years in prison, on charges of association with criminal activity and the instigation and destruction of public property). They are part of a list of political prisoners that the organization Foro Penal Venezolano—which works to defend and monitor such cases—has termed “of the first category”: “They are popular opponents, who are unsettling to the regime and represent a risk that must be neutralized through unjust criminalizations, without any form of judicial evidence,” explains Gonzalo Himiob Santomé, the organization’s director.
These are not, however, the majority of prisoners. Data from Foro Penal—the only Venezuelan institution to have produced an updated report on victims of arbitrary detention (in the absence of official information)—indicates that as of October 2017, there were 342 political prisoners in Venezuela (69 under house arrest). Among these are activists, journalists, students, teachers, and common citizens. They are prisoners who were detained during the protests in 2014, during the protests from April to August of this year, or who were identified by the government as outspoken critics who needed to be controlled.
Within this number, there is a smaller group, which the director of Foro Penal calls “propaganda prisoners”: members of businesses or unions that the government holds responsible for the country’s economic crisis and food shortages. “Just this past Thursday, several managers of flour and corn processors were detained and accused of hoarding food. Unjustified detentions such as these are used [by the government] as evidence in the face of accusations,” says Himiob.
From January 1, 2014 until October 31, 2017, there were 11,993 arbitrary detentions registered in Venezuela, of which nearly half—5,451—occurred during the protests that began in April of this year. Although these detentions decreased as the demonstrations were shut down, as of the end of October, 444 people remained in custody.
These arrests occurred without warrants and were carried out almost cinematically. They included the deployment of groups of armed men, occasionally accompanied by colectivos (paramilitary groups), and helicopters. This was the case with Juan Pedro Lares—son of Ómar Lares, the mayor of the Campo Elías municipality (Mérida). He was arrested in June by SEBIN, and was beaten and tortured as part of an operation seeking the arrest of his father, the opposition mayor. Juan Pedro, who at 23-years-old had never been interested in politics, was taken to the Helicoide prison in Caracas, where there is still no record of his capture.
(You may be interested in: Freedom for Juan Pedro Lares)
Although citizens who are detained in Venezuela are supposed to go before a judge within two days to be processed, the political prisoners of Madero’s government go months without their families knowing where they are or what they have been accused of. Family members of detainees tell stories of their spouses and children being taken from their houses and offices and brought to military bases. Once there, they are photographed with weapons, which are later used as evidence against them.
During one of his mother’s visits to Helicoide, Juan Pedro Lares told how, after being beaten and psychologically tortured, SEBIN agents had forced him to pose with weapons to be photographed. This also happened to Wilmer Azuaje, regional representative from the state of Barinas, who was arrested without a warrant on May 2 of this year—Azuaje has since released videos from prison showing himself chained with signs of torture.
“When Azuaje was captured, the official report stated that his vehicle was filled with military garb and weapons of war, such as grenades. This is a common practice, where officials start with information from social media and fabricate a scene for every case. Later, when one reads the charges against Azuaje, one notices that nearly every political prisoner is accused of the same crimes: improperly using military garments, illegally trafficking ammunition, possessing firearms. It’s as if they are copying and pasting pieces of forged documents over and over again,” says a source who worked closely with Luisa Ortega in the public prosecutor’s office, though prefers not to be identified.
To these we add the cases of 18 other individuals, including councilman José Vicente García and Twitter user Víctor Ugas, whom SEBIN refuses to set free—despite the fact that they have completed their sentences and have release notices.
According to Foro Penal, the Venezuelan government also uses different strategies to prevent trials from proceeding. They use anonymous witnesses, known as “cooperative patriots,” who become key parts of the investigations, but whom lawyers for the defense cannot confront. It is well-known that some members of the police intimidate detainees, saying that if they accept support from human rights organizations, they will be subject to retaliation. Eliécer Jiménez—a Venezuelan lawyer who used to work defending political prisoners, and who now, for fear, lives in exile—explains that it is common for judges to refuse to accept documents from defense lawyers, and that hearings are often intentionally postponed to generate fatigue. “There were times when we were scheduled for 9 o’clock in the morning and the hearing would begin at 11 p.m. It’s done to create exhaustion, to discourage lawyers who, like myself, were defending students and those who were unable to pay,” he says.
(You may be interested in “Today, persecution in Venezuela even targets chavistas” – Rafael Uzcátegui)
“The flight of Antonio Ledezma is one more example of how impossible it is to achieve justice in a country where the rule of law is entirely absent. While still mindful of these individuals’ situations, what is most concerning to us are the conditions of those who remain. It’s like when there is a group of hostages, and one escapes—those who remain are punished. We fear that now it will be harder to receive protective measures or house arrest for those that we defend,” says the director of Foro Penal.
“No one has been imprisoned for being a political leader or for promoting certain ideas—they are being imprisoned for violating laws,” claimed Nicolás Maduro in an interview on November 13 with the Catalan journalist, Jordi Évole.
(You may be interested in Why Venezuela is a Dictatorship)
*Journalist for Dejusticia