“The Bolivarian Intelligence Service is a monster that takes away the freedom from your body and soul,” is the first we hear from a former prisoner, whose identity remains hidden in SEBIN, the documentary researched and produced by 14 Lawyers. In it, the NGO that protects the right of defense, scrutinizes the repressive dynamics behind Sebin: the dissolvement of the rule of law, poorly trained and easily manipulated officers forging evidence, the intitutionalization of torture and the lack of autonomy in the judicial system.
The team of 14 Lawyers—an NGO based in Bilbao that protects and fights for the independence of the most exposed and vulnerable lawyers— first set foot in Venezuela after the 2017 protests, which resulted in 4,848 political arrests. “Our first visit was focused on talking to defense attorneys. We interviewed 15 people, and every attorney who had been involved in a political trial reported threats, persecution and harassment from Sebin officials,” says Ignacio Rodríguez, director of 14 Lawyers. “We realized how Sebin was a fundamental piece of the Venezuelan regime to persecute and contain civil organizations.”
Sebin was created in 2009 as the premier intelligence agency in Venezuela but, since 2013, it became an internal security force subordinated to the Vice-Presidency, currently occupied by Delcy Rodríguez. It’s a division aimed at “detecting and neutralizing internal and external actors that threaten national security” and has been described as the political police force of the Bolivarian government to persecute dissidents. Former prisoners of this force insistently describe arbitrary detentions, intimidation, physical violence and torture. “Testimonies are consistent, so we conclude this is state policy,” says Rodríguez.
For the five-part documentary, 14 Lawyers interviewed 40 people—human rights activists, lawyers, former Sebin officers and prisoners—most of them with hidden identities due to the precautionary measures dictated by Venezuelan courts prohibiting them to publicly talk about their case. “Testimonies were hard to hear, but the most difficult interview was with a former Sebin officer, who acknowledged and talked with incredible ease about forged evidence. She didn’t understand the magnitude and consequences of her actions,” recalls Rodríguez after explaining the long and detailed process behind the interviews and the importance of corroborating testimonies.
The former Sebin officer’s testimony confirms how often intelligence bodies forge evidence, plant weapons, money and fingerprints, and present made-up witnesses. Such is the case of Raúl López, La Tumba’s first prisoner. He was detained during a demonstration, but when officers saw his ID, they presented him as Leopoldo López’s brother and made up communications between him and opposition leaders. He was detained for two months under gruesome conditions.
Alonso Medina Roa, director of the Coalition of Human Rights and Democracy, sustains how torture has been implemented systematically as part of the detention process. In Caracas, El Helicoide, La Tumba and Ramo Verde are the most notorious political prisons, but there’s a multitude of satellite centers, scattered and hidden inside the city, destined specifically for torture. Interviewees describe practices like waterboarding, electric shocks, asphyxia, beatings, mock executions, deep cuts, cigarette burns and sexual abuse.
While detention centers like La Tumba apply total isolation, white surroundings, 9° temperature, bright lights at all times and 24 hour surveillance; punishment areas inside El Helicoide like El Tigrito, Guántanamo and La Pecera are minuscule spaces without ventilation or running water, where common and political prisoners have to endure overcrowding, extreme heat and police brutality. “Political prisoners suffer grave abuses even though they usually have NGOs, lawyers and public opinion on their side. Common prisoners are exposed to ill treatment because they don’t have proper representation. Officers feel free to show their most sadistic side with them,” says Andrea González, former Sebin prisoner.
Meanwhile, arbitrary arrests, abuses and torture can’t be denounced to prosecutors. Medina Roa explains how the judicial system is subordinated to the intelligence divisions and judges get their posts for ideological reasons rather than academic ones. “Attorneys are also exposed to a lot of violence while they try to defend political prisoners. The team was impressed, on our first visit in cities like Caracas, Maracaibo, Barquisimeto, San Carlos, to see how threats, intimidation and physical violence were normalized among Venezuelan lawyers trying to do their jobs.”
Even though 14 Lawyers has documented harassment, provided lawyers with technology so they can work safely, assisted attorneys in strategic litigation, and pressured governments that violate the freedom and independence of lawyers (like China, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Mexico and Colombia) Rodríguez says that Venezuela’s most distinguishable trait is how public Sebin’s practices have become: “They don’t want to hide what they do. They’re comfortable with how they’re seen.”