A Venezuelan NGO, in conjunction with Human Rights Watch, has accused the government of Venezuela of beating and torturing peaceful protesters arrested and thrown into military prisons. Among the most gruesome tortures that multiple survivors of the prisons recalled was being forced to eat “pasta with feces.”
The joint statement by HRW and the Venezuelan Penal Forum NGO noted that at least 275 civilians who had congregated to protest dictator Nicolás Maduro had been arrested and thrown into military prisons between late March, when the latest wave of protests began, and May 15.
Venezuelans have organized large protests against the government nationwide since the Supreme Court, controlled by Maduro’s socialist party, attempted to nullify the existence of the National Assembly and name itself the federal legislative body. While the Supreme Court ultimately rescinded that ruling, Maduro later announced the creation of a constitutional congress to draft a new constitution, presumably to expand executive powers and limit the authority of the opposition-controlled assembly.
The NGO notes that, of the 275 known political arrests since protests began, 159 remain in prison and the Venezuelan government has failed to keep official records on their cases.
Compiling evidence from those released and attorneys and families who have spoken to those remaining behind bars, the groups found significant proof of violations of human rights occurring in these military prisons. Among them were a number of cases in which members of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) beat the prisoners severely using aluminum bats and individuals who said they had their hair cut off. Those prisoners whom NGO officials managed to interview in person exhibited large wounds and bruises from this treatment.
The NGOs continue to note, “at least 15 [prisoners] said they were forced to eat raw pasta with human excrement (the agents had applied powder used to make tear gas on their noses, forcing them to open their mouths to ingest).”
A number of these individuals, the NGOs add, are being tried for military crimes like “mutiny” and “treason” despite being civilians and having only their peaceful participation in protests on their “criminal” records.
Alfredo Romero, the head of the Venezuelan Penal Forum, told Radio Caracas Radio (RCR) that his group estimates that over 1,500 political prisoners are currently behind bars in Venezuela. “There are many cases of torture, and in fact we have seen the case of a man who had a cigarette put out on his arm,” he explained. “What is happening is very grave.”
The Penal Forum denounced the use of military tribunals for civilian cases last week, noting that using military tribunals in such a manner directly violates the Venezuelan constitution and defies international human rights norms. At the time, Romero shared an anecdote from one of the political prisoners he represents: “one person from whom the police confiscated four pieces of ham is facing charges of contempt and sedition. Now they claim he was insulting the guards. Most are charged this way.”
Also included in these military tribunals are individuals who were arrested for toppling and destroying a statue of late dictator Hugo Chávez in Zulia state this month, the latest in a string of such incidents against the many monuments of Chávez across the country.
The use of military tribunals for civilians began to accelerate following the launch of the “Zamora Plan,” a military initiative meant to quell protests against the Venezuelan regime. Maduro has not released the details of what this plan entails.
Before the Zamora plan, however, the Venezuelan government used military justice against civilians like Leopoldo López, the head of the Popular Will political party, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for “terrorism” (organizing a peaceful anti-government rally) in 2014 and has since been held in isolation in the Ramo Verde military prison.
Also among the higher-profile political prisoners is Brigadier General Ángel Vivas, who resisted arrest for years after being convicted of attempting to prevent Chávez’s imposition of the Cuban motto “nation, socialism, or death” onto the Venezuelan military. Vivas, 60, is reportedly being tortured and beaten in prison, as well, and has lost hearing in one ear and most sight in one of his eyes.
At least one American citizen is being held in Venezuela’s prison for political reasons. Utah native Joshua Holt was arrested last year after traveling to Venezuela with his Venezuelan-born wife on charges of allegedly stockpiling weapons. He has reportedly lost 50 pounds and had his health deteriorate in prison. The government has yet to give a date to process or release him, despite multiple eyewitness reports that government agents planted weapons in his apartment and there is no concrete evidence on which to arrest him.