Political Prison in Venezuela: ‘We’re All Exposed and On Parole’

Venezuela holds hundreds of political prisoners. For each of them, an entire family is suffering. Lilia Camejo and Joel García, two human rights lawyers, tell us about the hidden reality of state persecution

Venezuelans are not talking about the 316 political prisoners accounted for by NGO Justicia, Encuentro y Perdón, or 246 if we use Foro Penal’s numbers for reference. Not a month has gone by since seventeen political prisoners accused of the foiled assassination plot of August 2018 were sentenced, and no one talks about the case or the defendants. There wasn’t much talk about it during the four days and long nightsof the trial. On the contrary, Venezuela talked more about a wedding engagement and the ticket price of a concert (even more than the nationwide teachers’ strike).

If Venezuelans aren’t talking about this, just imagine how invisible this situation is to the world. Caracas Chronicles spoke to Lilia Camejo, military penal justice specialist, and Joel García, human rights defense specialist, for a detailed exposition of their experience representing political prisoners in Venezuela.

Do we forget that there are political prisoners in Venezuela, do we normalize it, or aren’t we aware they exist?

LC: In general, there’s a lack of interest by society, and if you go to other parts of the country outside Caracas, there’s a good amount of people who have no idea that we have political prisoners. Maybe because they’re busy solving their own problems or, in the case of political parties, busy with the next elections. But the media and NGOs, and the lawyers, are always denouncing and trying to spark interest, because behind a prisoner, there’s a family tragedy. In a way, the entire family is in prison.

JG: I don’t think the nation forgot political prisoners. First of all, Venezuelans have little knowledge on what human rights are. Also, normalizing the abnormal leads to a lack of empathy and we don’t understand that when one person’s human rights are violated, everyone’s human rights are violated, because we can all be victims of these violations at any time. We’re all exposed and on parole. Even lawyers are saying “we’re already used to having human rights violated.” When a civilian is detained as a political prisoner, it’s just another piece of news, something normal after 23 years with this government system. Until a person’s human rights or someone very close to them are violated, they don’t know what’s happening nor that it’s the State, precisely the one that has to guarantee these rights, the one violating them.

LC: There’s some misinformation. The military is one of the most vulnerable groups, because they can be detained for any reason and have their career affected, even if they have devoted their lives to the Armed Forces… Many of them have been discharged without being convicted of anything and left without their salary.

In the case of military political prisoners, the lack of interest seems to be tied to the “serves them right, for being in the army, because they sold themselves, because they haven’t done anything” …

LC: Maybe. People think that all those in the military who are in prison for political reasons were in high positions, doing well financially, that they had access to everything, and that’s not true. Arrested military personnel have been left alone, their families are unprotected, almost no one fights for them.

What are the typical forms of abuse against military folk and civilians?

JG: To be persecuted and isolated from the world you only need to be a nuisance to get incriminated. The police, prosecutors, and judges are accomplices. They’re told to obey what the Attorney General says, which in turn believes what police authorities have already established is the truth before the trial even takes place. This happens to all prisoners, politically relevant, famous, or not. And there isn’t a court of appeals, a public defender’s office, or a human rights organization that works. I’ve been witness to thousands of human rights violations by judges or prosecutors who just take note of the abuses, or pretend they do, and that’s it, because we don’t have institutions to protect the vulnerable.

LC: In the case of the military officers in prison, we’ve seen different patterns of persecution. For example, those who were first in their class and officers of special forces in the four branches are persecuted more. Another thing that’s out of order: just like military officers have to be tried in military courts and exceptionally in civil courts, civilians can’t be tried in military courts, which we have been denouncing since 2017, when over seven hundred civilians were tried in military courts. We also see that the special terrorist jurisdiction has been used to try active officials when, in many cases, this offense doesn’t even apply, as well as the one on criminal association, because neither of these are written in the military justice code. Like the cases of civil justice, there are processes in which the facts aren’t told by the prosecutors. The officers who carry out the arrests and write the reports and then are denounced by the detainees, are the same ones who are then promoted. On top of all this, since there’s only one military prison (Ramo Verde) and two military annexes (La Pica and Santa Ana) in Venezuela, there are people who’ve been remanded who used to be in Caracas and were sent to Monagas or Táchira, and that’s a tragedy because their families or defense don’t have the resources to move all the way there.

The military is one of the most vulnerable groups, because they can be detained for any reason and have their career affected, even if they have devoted their lives to the Armed Forces… Many of them have been discharged without being convicted of anything and left without their salary.

No one talks about the torture…

LC: Military prisoners are tortured a lot more than civilians. Many of them have arrived brutally tortured to hearings and the officers tell us that we must file the complaint to the fundamental rights prosecutor at the public defender’s office, when the law against torture, cruelty, inhumane and degrading treatment says that if any public agent is aware of any of these events, they’re required to open an investigation.

Do “famous” political prisoners get tortured less than those who aren’t?

JG: There is a difference when the detainee has more notoriety, when a political party is behind them or is a public figure, because the government has always feared the public. In the case of the foiled assassination plot, everything was done violating the minimum police performance rules, many people were tortured, and almost lost their lives. Judges and prosecutors know it, there were even prosecutors present during the tortures. Many people know what happened to my client, but few know about the woman who’s now in a wheelchair. I saw how the judge, during the trial phase, turned a deaf ear to the torture claims, and mocked her when she asked to see a doctor.

Forgetting about the political prisoner also has to do with the defending lawyer?

JG: Of course, because the ones who really know about the process are the defendant, their family, and their lawyer. If the family or the lawyer isn’t capable of publicly denouncing, the case won’t be known.

Is there anything being done right?

LC: Actually, yes. We have to acknowledge that some things have improved: when filing a request to move a prisoner because of a health concern, some judges have called the detention center directors to have them transferred; they have allowed visitation days and meetings with their lawyers. Family members have said that they allow them to bring food. Some will say that that’s how it’s supposed to be, and it’s true, but since it hadn’t been happening for a long time, it’s something, and for the people inside, it’s a lot. As for the rest of it, we suffer the process and decisions like in civil justice, which won’t ever follow due process. Military justice is usually more severe, because the head of the military criminal justice system is the President, followed by the Defense Minister, and they both belong to the Executive Branch, so there’s no independence in the justice sector because of how it was set up in the Code of Military Justice.

Where did these improvements come from?

LC: Maybe they came as a result of the reports by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, the UN Fact-Finding Mission, pressure, or because they know that international justice isn’t some story of a faraway land.

So many political prisoners and so few lawyers, why?

JG: Because these defense lawyers, for the most part, work pro bono, out of sheer vocation. In my case, it’s pure conviction that I have to do something about it.

LC: Military criminal justice is relatively new after the increase in arrests to officers which we began to see in 2017. Before that, its jurisdiction was just about desertion, theft of objects belonging to the armed forces; it handled cases of military crime.

Are lawyers scarce because of fear?

JG: Some don’t take on a case because they say it might hurt some of their other cases, their personal security or their families’. Others only limit themselves to disclosing the number of political prisoners, and others just talk about jurisprudence, doctrine, how things should be done, as if Venezuela had a perfect Rule of Law.

When one talks about these topics, you sometimes feel like you’re plowing the sea…

JG: I don’t see it that way. You have to try. Every time a judge or a prosecutor denies a right, they’re choosing a path where they might be tried, because I’m fully convinced that this won’t last forever…

LC: You have to appeal, introduce a protective measure, request revocation, denounce and report again, go through all the internal resources and also international jurisdiction, because everything has to be documented. The time will come for negotiations, like it has happened before; in 2016 they released several political prisoners, in 2020 there were several pardons. When the time comes, they’ll analyze what lawyers did and decisions will be made.

Kaoru Yonekura

Venezuelan writer and the winner of the Gabo Foundation Journalism for Solutions scholarship.