Political prisoners being held in Caracas’ Helicoide prison – once destined to be the capital’s largest shopping mall, but now home to over 50 political dissidents – began protesting against the regime and demanding their freedom Tuesday night, prompting a violent response from Venezuela’s secret police (Sebin).
Among the political prisoners are Daniel Ceballos, the former mayor of western San Cristóbal; General Ángel Vivas, arrested for refusing to follow orders from Hugo Chávez; student opposition leader Lorent Saleh; and American hostage Joshua Holt, arrested for allegedly planning a revolution on behalf of Washington. Relatives of those imprisoned began assembling outside of the prison Wednesday night, announcing they would not leave the area until their loved ones were free.
At least one of the prisoners, dissident Gregory Sanabria, received a brutal beating for demanding his rights; political prisoners contend that common prisoners received money from guards to conduct the attack. Photos of the resulting injuries began circulating among dissident leaders on Twitter Thursday.
Mírate en esa cara. Es tu compatriota, Gregory Sanabria estudiante ingeniería.3 años preso en Helicoide.Esta es la cara de la tragedia nuestra pic.twitter.com/EeCG74qZhq
— Diego E. Arria (@Diego_Arria) May 17, 2018
Several of these opposition leaders, along with other political prisoners trapped in El Helicoide, appeared in videos circulating on social media demanding an end to “daily” torture and the release of those who have not been convicted of any crime. The dissidents also demanded the release of minors imprisoned at the facility, who the government denies are there.
Some videos have appeared on the personal Facebook and Twitter accounts of the political prisoners, while others have been sent to independent media outlets directly. Venezuela’s prisons are notorious for bribery of guards; in the worst prisons, common criminals keep entire weapons arsenals to continue conducting organized criminal business like drug trafficking.
“They torture and beat innocent people daily. At this time, there are minors here detained by the system and people who need medical attention,” one of the prisoners says in a video posted by opposition leader María Corina Machado. “There are women. We make Attorney General Tarek William Saab responsible. You are responsible if the forces of repression, the commandos, try to come in here again. They have already used tear gas, pepper spray, despite the total lack of ventilation here.”
La Venezuela que no se rinde; que no se calla. La que desde el Helicoide desafía al régimen y sacude al mundo, a pesar de la cruel amenaza y represión. Aquí hay fuerza y dignidad para enfrentarlos y derrotarlos. FUERZA, Venezuela está allí, con cada uno de ustedes. pic.twitter.com/CUv9QMddIC
— María Corina Machado (@MariaCorinaYA) May 17, 2018
In another video message, posted after Saab and government media announced the “riot” in the prison was over, Ceballos confirms, “Here nobody is sleeping calmly. We are standing for our freedom and the freedom of this country.”
— Gaby Arellano (@gabyarellanoVE) May 17, 2018
Gen. Ángel Vivas rose to international acclaim after refusing to pledge allegiance using Hugo Chávez’s new motto “Nation, Socialism, or Death” and refusing to work with Cuban communist agents. Following the publication of his arrest warrant in the Chávez era, Vivas took his firearms and locked himself in his house in Táchira. He was arrested in a raid in April 2017 and tortured and beaten, losing part of his hearing and eyesight and suffering broken ribs.
Vivas appeared notably deteriorated in health in a video published by the news network NTN24 on Wednesday. He denies government-spread rumors that the prisoners were rioting and killing each other and guards.
“The country knows me as a serious person with over ten years of struggle, and that my word has weight. I am totally in faith that it is a lie orchestrated by the government so that they can stage a massacre, to use disproportionate force and murder many compatriots,” Vivas says. “There is a peaceful takeover, there are no weapons, just a group of political prisoners and common prisoners who want due process.”
— NTN24 Venezuela (@NTN24ve) May 16, 2018
State news outlets and Attorney General Saab announced early Thursday that the situation had ended in the prison and prisoners were no longer organizing against the regime. On Thursday morning, Ceballos’ Twitter account posted a photograph of prisoners, men and women, overrunning what appears to be a hallway in the prison. In a tweet, the former mayor lists 11 common prisoners who were given permission to leave but never allowed to do so; 4 who received no due process at all; 4 awaiting the results of a psychological exam to know whether they are facing charges; 9 who paid bail but have not been let go; 46 with permission to transfer to a lower-security prison; 59 political prisoners who received no due process; 4 minors; and 3 awaiting extradition.
REPORTE Helicoide 8am
Presos Políticos – Presos Comunes
con boleta libertad:11
secuestrados, nunca presentados:4
en espera de examen psicosocial:4
con boleta de traslado:46
-PPolíticos sin juicio y sin traslado:59
– menores de edad:4
– con orden de extradición:3 pic.twitter.com/cDAXzAN5Fs
— Daniel Ceballos (@Daniel_Ceballos) May 17, 2018
Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional reports that 54 of the nation’s 338 known political prisoners are being kept at El Helicoide. According to Venezuela’s Penal Forum NGO, 20 of those at El Helicoide have been granted provisional release, but have not been allowed to leave the facility. It also serves as the headquarters of the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service, the “secret police” or Sebin.
Dictator Nicolás Maduro has yet to address the situation. On Twitter, as the videos began pouring onto social media, Maduro logged on to wish Muslims a happy start to the holy month of Ramadan. On Thursday, he posted a message reading, “Nobody can stop so much love. We will win because Venezuela opens horizons to a prosperous future. We will win for you, the people.”
— Nicolás Maduro (@NicolasMaduro) May 17, 2018
Maduro has scheduled presidential elections for May 20, Cuba’s Independence Day. Only he and other socialist candidates have been allowed on the ballot; no opposition politicians were certified to run. The international community has condemned the election as undemocratic and called for Maduro to cancel them.
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