Nobody Knows Why Saleh Was Released (But We Can Guess)

Lorent Saleh is a rebel who didn’t need political parties, he fought cops and claimed he’d use snipers. No one backed him up then, and nobody knows why he’s out of jail. Or do we?

Photo: El Estímulo retrieved.

Lorent Saleh’s case wasn’t formally dropped, and he wasn’t pardoned. His story is that of a rebel who engaged into non-partisan kamikaze politics, clashing with the police and claiming to have snipers; it’s also the story of a political prisoner supported by few. After four years locked up at SEBIN headquarters, he was exiled to Spain, leaving many unanswered questions, including the very reasons for his release.

All he got was a “recommendation” of release, after alleged assessments of violent, self-destructive and even suicidal behavior. The National Constituent Assembly’s statement about him arrived late, published more than three years after Saleh actually tried to kill himself. Was he truly released because of that?

Lorent Saleh was imprisoned in SEBIN’s Plaza Venezuela headquarters (known as “La Tumba”), for 25 months between September 2014 and October 2016. “It was a freezing basement, with black floors and white walls, without a clock. It was impossible to know whether it was day or night. His food arrived at odd times and he was forbidden any sort of communication, except with his mom or his lawyers. That’s how it was for the first eight months,” says his lawyer, Juan González.

“He tried to kill himself twice,” says his mother, Yamile Saleh.  

“He thought he was dead and tried to find a way to confirm it,” the lawyer says. “That’s why he cut himself. The next time was probably out of despair; he couldn’t talk to anyone, and he hung himself with a bed sheet.”

After those incidents, the conditions of his imprisonment relaxed: he could talk with other prisoners, he had access to pen and paper and he could read books. He was still under pressure, though: “Katherine Harringhton—prosecutor in charge of the case back then—offered him freedom if he gave her a confession framing innocent opposition leaders,” González says.   “She also told him, as it was indeed happening, that he’d rot in jail.”

A year later, and after a fight with a SEBIN agent, Saleh was taken to El Helicoide.

“He thought he was dead and tried to find a way to confirm it,” the lawyer says. “That’s why he cut himself.”

According to the official narrative, Lorent Saleh was accused of terrorism and paramilitary activity. In 2014, when he was arrested, Miguel Rodríguez Torres, Interior Minister at that moment, released several videos in which he’s heard talking about alleged criminal plans. The videos include phrases as incriminating as “Man, we have snipers here. We have everything;” “With $10,000, we put a sniper there in Caracas. You find the people and I’ll put the troop, dude.”

“The videos are part of an investigation carried out by the Prosecutor’s Office on conspiracy for rebellion,” says González. “The investigation itself includes no measure to restrict his liberty, but it was used to prosecute Antonio Ledezma.”

The material was recorded by SEBIN agent José Rafael Núñez, and the lawyer swears it’s been tampered with.

In any case, the narrative succeeded. Both Saleh’s mom and his lawyer regret that opposition politicians ignored the case at first, frightened of taking pictures with the prisoner. Lawmaker Adriana Pichardo admits to it, for example, although she’s careful to not associate  the whole of Voluntad Popular, her party, with that behavior: “At some point, we tried to give him the chance to be a candidate for some opposition parties at the National Assembly (to give him parliamentary immunity). It was impossible, with the harsh campaign the government did against Lorent’s image.”

A game of perception. And what’s in the court file? Less serious crimes: disseminating false information to cause panic and facilitating the access of foreigners to the country, giving them national IDs.

The first case comes from 2010. Hugo Chávez had authorized the use of tear gas and the list of political prisoners had about thirty people. In Valencia, Carabobo, Saleh attended a protest when he was arrested carrying slingshots, flashlights, chains, shears, nails, deodorants and banners. “It was the face of late President Hugo Chávez with Pinocchio’s shadow behind,” the lawyer says. “The banner had a headline, ‘Chávez Lies.’ For that, he was indicted for disseminating false information,” and he was barred from leaving Carabobo, an order that he ignored, although no authority acted on it.

When I asked the judge why there was no preliminary hearing, he said  ‘I’m waiting for instructions from above.’ González López (head of SEBIN) told me, ‘this is a political case, this is solved politically.’

After another three arrests without major criminal consequences, on September 4, 2014, Lorent Saleh was detained in Colombia, accused of having an expired visa. The immigration service decided to expel him from the territory that same day and turned him in, to the Bolivarian Service of National Intelligence at the Simón Bolívar bridge, in Táchira.

Upon his arrival to Caracas, Saleh was confronted with the file from 2010, plus another crime: forging documents to help Colombian citizens enter the territory. “He was presented before court 45 continuous days later, one action, two accusations, by the 20th prosecutor with national competence, Katherine Harringhton. The preliminary hearing should’ve been held between 15 and 20 days later; November 2014 at most.” But that never happened. The two-year cap established in the Framework Code of Criminal Process for personal coercive measures was also ignored. “On July 8, 2016, the Prosecutor’s Office requested that Lorent Saleh be released. Judge Edecio Velásquez issued a statement saying that he was going to make his decision when the preliminary hearing was held. But the hearing was postponed 53 times and it never happened.”

Meanwhile, Yamile Saleh spent four years looking for answers. “The current prosecutor general, Tarek (William Saab) knows very well that my son is innocent. We discussed it many times when he was Ombudsman. When I asked the judge why there was no preliminary hearing, he said  ‘I’m waiting for instructions from above.’ González López (head of SEBIN) told me, ‘this is a political case, this is solved politically’.”

In June this year, she spoke to José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero: “He said he was going to help me.”

On the following October 12, Yamile confirmed Lorent’s release when, at the gates of El Helicoide, she received a phone call from the Spanish ambassador in Caracas, Jesús Silva. Her son was taken straight from the dungeon to the Maiquetía airport, to be exiled to Spain. Nobody knows what passport he used for the trip, what’s his legal status in Madrid and how his court case in Venezuela will be settled.

Such is justice under the Revolution.