The mothers and wives of political prisoners held in Venezuela’s Helicoide, a building designed as a shopping mall that now houses dozens of the nation’s prisoners of conscience, said late Sunday they were denied visiting rights that day and have heard nothing of their loved ones since a protest forced the transfer of dozens out of the facility.
The brutal beating of political prisoner Gregory Sanabria triggered an unarmed revolt within the Helicoide last week. Dissidents – including EU Sakharov Prize winners Daniel Ceballos and Lorent Saleh, anti-socialist General Ángel Vivas, and American hostage Joshua Holt – began frantically posting videos and photos on social media noting that underaged prisoners and women were being held in the Helicoide for political reasons along with common prisoners. Shortly after the revolt began, the socialist government of dictator Nicolás Maduro ordered the transfer of 72 prisoners out of the facility.
Relatives of the prisoners of conscience still inside say they have not heard from their loved ones since the transfer and could not visit them on Sunday, the typically scheduled visitation day for the Helicoide. Those posting from within the prison have not posted any videos or written messages since shortly after the announced transfer of prisoners. The government has not revealed who the prisoners transferred out of the Helicoide were, neither publicly nor to their families.
The relatives of many political prisoners believed to still be in the Helicoide have stationed themselves outside the facility for the past five days.
Yamile Saleh, the mother of dissident Lorent Saleh, posted on Twitter Monday images of herself and other relatives of political prisoners in front of the Helicoide. “Today is Monday, a day where political hostages in the Helicoide are entitled their judiciary visits,” she wrote on Twitter.” Attorneys were not allowed to visit their clients. They were also denied. I have no news of my son Lorent Saleh!”
#21May | ⏰ 10: 00 Am
Hoy es Lunes, día que les corresponde la VISITA JURÍDICA a los secuestrados políticos en el #Helicoide.
No les fue permitido el ingreso a los abogados a ver a sus defendidos. Les negaron su visita también.
— Yamile Saleh Rojas (@yamisaleh) May 21, 2018
While Monday is a lawyers’ visitation day, Sunday is family visitation day, and Saleh said she was barred from visiting her son on this occasion. Late Sunday, Saleh said she had spent the past 116 hours without having any knowledge of her son’s health and stability. She does not know if he was transferred out of the Helicoide or not and has not been allowed to visit him. Saleh demanded proof that her son was alive and called upon the international community to pressure Venezuela to release the dissidents.
One of Saleh’s last communications with the outside world occurred last week on Israel’s i24 News. In that interview, Saleh accused Venezuela’s socialist police of attacking prisoners with tear gas.
“It is important for people to know that there is no ventilation here. There are minors, women, and elderly people here. We are tired of being tortured every day,” he told the Israeli outlet. “There are very tiny rooms that are called ‘the bathrooms.’ Rooms with no light or ventilation, and they put people in there for weeks and even months. They beat them, with no food, no water. They hang people there with handcuffs and chins by their arms and legs.”
Patricia de Ceballos, the wife of dissident and former San Cristóbal Mayor Daniel Ceballos, also told local outlets that she had not heard about the state of her husband in five days on Sunday.
“The declarations by [Attorney General] Tarek William Saab are irresponsible and false,” Ceballos said. “Nothing has been solved here. Our political prisoner relatives are still trapped in this place. No public official has informed us of anything.”
The Venezuelan outlet Runrunes quotes Ceballos as saying that the little information they have received from within the prison seems to indicate that no major escalation of violence has occurred, in part because “the United States’ charge d’affairs has been present and the Catholic Church has helped us a lot.” She also stated that pressure from international media has made it harder to successfully crack down on dissidents using violent tactics.
The United States is involved in the affair because of the presence of Joshua Holt in the prison. Holt was arrested in 2016 after Venezuelan soldiers planted weapons in the home he shared with his wife, the Venezuelan citizen Thamara Caleño, and arrested them both for allegedly plotting against the socialist regime. The Trump administration has repeatedly demanded Holt’s release, but he remains imprisoned in the Helicoide, which suggests he is considered a political prisoner.
Runrunes reports, according to unnamed sources, that the takeover of the prison by dissidents appeared to begin after common prisoners violently beat Gregory Sanabria. Tensions had been growing between the two prison populations, as common prisoners resented that they believed the political prisoners were being treated better than them; the political prisoners claim the opposite is true.
In the immediate aftermath of Sanabria’s beating, Holt used what appears to be a cellular phone at his disposal in the prison to record desperate messages to the outside world.
“Helicoide the prison where I am at has fallen [sic] the guards are here and people.are trying to break in my room and kill me [sic],” Holt wrote on his Facebook page. “They want to kill me and paint the walls with my blood. I am a political prisoner, and they won’t let me free. They won’t give me a true trial.”
Holt also posted two videos demanding the United States help him escape.
Shortly following the publication of those videos, the political prisoners overran the part of the Helicoide where Holt was being held. Holt then appeared much more relaxed in videos alongside Saleh, Ceballos, and Vivas, among other prisoners.
According to the Venezuelan Penal Forum, an NGO that tracks politically-motivated arrests and killings in the country, the Helicoide is a co-ed prison, housing 19 female political prisoners. Reports from within state that the women are conducting a hunger strike, though it is unclear if they continue to do so at press time. The women are demanding their release, noting they have not been accused of any crime and are being held with male prisoners convicted of common crimes, endangering them. One of the women, Geraldine Chacón, stands not only accused of no crime, but a court has already filed and completed the paperwork for her release. Yet she remains behind bars; the Penal Forum does not know whether she was one of the 72 reportedly transferred out of the prison.
In a broadcast last Thursday, Saab stated that the 72 prisoners were moved to keep the peace, and claimed the protests for an end to imprisoning dissidents and torturing all prisoners were merely a “common row” among prisoners over an unspecified “theft.”
The Helicoide holds 54 of the nation’s 338 known political prisoners, according to the Venezuelan Penal Forum. There is no updated count of the ones who remain following the transfer.