The truth behind Helicoide jail
A total of 158 prisoners are jailed in the imprisonment centers of Ramo Verde, SEBIN and DIM, most of their cases are under process but they have not been sentenced yet; their cases have been submitted to the IACHR
It was quite a shock for the Venezuelan delegation which represented the Venezuelan State in the session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS), to realize that a group of non-governmental organizations submitted a report concerning the situation with two jails where most political prisoners are kept. "They were not expecting this and therefore were not prepared to give an answer," Rocío San Miguel tells us, and who happened to present the case before the Commission last November 1 of the current year.
We are speaking of three imprisonment centers which have been in the public eye in the past years. These are the National Center for Processed Military Officers from Ramo Verde based in Los Teques, the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) located in Caracas and the DIM (Military Intelligence Division) based in Boleíta. According to the spokeswoman of NGO Control Ciudadano de Seguridad (Citizen Control for Security), these are centers where prisoners are sort of invisible for the Venezuelan Government and totally unaware of any control mechanism laid down in the Law.
Approximately 158 people are held prisoners at these centers, both military officers and citizens; some of them are kept there for matters related to politics, banking cases and minor crimes linked with misbehaviors like desertion which is an offence contemplated in the Military Code.
Interestingly, the day of the presentation at the international organization about the "situation regarding people confined" "those in charge of Ramo Verde jail ordered, at 5 am, to paint the jail and wait for the arrival of Minister of Penitentiary Matters, Iris Varela. But a month later, nothing has been done relative the debt they have with prisoners regarding judicial proceedings and release proceedings which correspond to many of these prisoners according to the Criminal Code," San Miguel asserts.
During the presentation at the IACHR, it was pointed out that at these three imprisonment centers, unlike regular jails, the secretiveness concerning the events that take place inside them "is total." "There are no prans (inmate leaders) there; neither there are scandals leaked to the media. There, control is exercised by directors. At the SEBIN, General Miguel Rodríguez Torres maintains as the leader whereas General Carlos Yánez Figueredo (recently replaced) does at Ramo Verde. According to San Miguel, these powerful directors only render accounts directly to President Hugo Chávez; prisoners in these centers express the same.
This center does not present official reports regarding the number of detainees there; Control Ciudadano has recorded 46 people, six out of which have been sentenced; these are the cases of the commissioners and police agents linked with the events of April 11; the rest is a bunch of accused behind bars.
The SEBIN, located in Helicoide in Caracas is not an imprisonment center or jail formally recorded. It is a state-led police center built back in the 50's for different purposes. It was abandoned for several years; eventually, it was used by the police body as headquarters. In the very beginning, the cells were intended to hold detainees for for no longer than 72 hours.
Besides the prisoners of April 11, there are other detainees for emblematic cases, like the Guevara brothers, accused of murdering public prosecutor Danilo Anderson and the detainees for the events occurred at Altamira Square.
In this imprisonment center, banker Eligio Cedeño had been kept for two years and 10 months until December 10, 2009, time when judge María Lourdes Afiuni granted him conditional release, requested by the UN (United Nations) to the court. The action caused judge Afiuni to be arrested and Cedeño went into exile.
Later on, Cedeño appeared in the Inter-American Court on Human Rights as part of a case related to student Raúl Díaz Peña, who served a as witness to the confinement conditions existing at Helicoide jail. In such trial, the IACHR found Venezuela guilty of human rights violation on abuse and torture perpetrated to Peña while he was behind bars. Peña was detained in Helicoide for six years, until 2010. At that time, he was granted conditional release and sought asylum in the United States.
It is worth noting that such sentence against Venezuela sped up the Venezuelan Government's decision to withdraw from the Inter-American Court, which will be effective in a year. It is worth remembering that from 2002 to date, the Inter-American Court has heard 62 cases from Venezuela on human rights abuses and for such reason, the country has been given 12 sentences.
Commissioner Iván Simonovis has been behind bars at Helicoide jail since November 22, 2004; just recently, he turned eight years in jail.
According to Simonovis, he stays in a 2 x 2 meter cell in a special division where other 16 prisoners remain. One of the characteristics of these cells is that they are locked up with padlocks between 10 pm and 6 am. Inmates are forced to urinate and defecate in improvised containers as the cells count on no bathrooms. Prisoners need to keep their human waste between 10 pm and 6 am as doors are closed in that period of time.
During the day, they are allowed to move around such hall that stretches 28 meters long and one meter wide and shared by those 16 prisoners. This hall is completely enclosed, it lacks natural ventilation and sunlight.Therefore, prisoners cannot distinguish whether it is day or night. This group of prisoners is allowed to be in sunlight once every 15 days and up to one hour.
There is one bathroom only for the 16 prisoners and a kitchen with one single gas ring which is used by 30 people or so. There is no prompt medical care in case of emergency; the prisoners' food is provided by their own relatives because of the little, poor-quality portion of food cooked in the jail.
Such conditions have affected Commissioner Simonovis's health as well as other prisoners'. Regarding Commissioner Simonovis's case, in eight years of confinement, he has been able to get fresh air and sunlight for just 13 days. One of the consequences of this has been the development of osteoporosis.
In the cases of political prisoners, some of them have denounced psychological abuse and retaliations before international organizations.
Threatens to prisoners
According to testimonies collected by Control Ciudadano, the most emblematic prisoners are threatened by wardens for any inappropriate behavior that their relatives have. San Miguel highlights that such action includes any request of procedural rights, or any complaint aired to the media.
"There, the only rule they exercise for the ones who enter the SEBIN is if you keep your mouth shut, you will have the chance to be released soon." Many people have fallen into such manipulative sadist game because they are tried to be silenced. That is how blackmail is done by political representatives from the Government; they ask you for silence in exchange for freedom. And this is a cycle that feeds on blackmail, submissiveness, acquiescence."
"I can tell that those who have resisted to the end are the police agents; they are considered the toughest, the ones who keep their ground. These have been forcefully victim of the most violent tortures and, along with the arrested ones from Altamira Square -who are now free- such as the cases of Díaz Peña and Felipe Rodríguez, they have been the most brutally attacked and tortured."
Ramo Verde jail
Currently, 97 citizens are held prisoners in this military confinement center, 33 out of which have been convicted. Only seven out of these 33 cases fall to military courts. From the bunch of prisoners, 64 of them are charged with offences that do not exceed a six-year imprisonment in case of conviction.
According to NGO Control Ciudadano, such detained military officers are there "in clear violation of Article 44 of the Bolivarian Constitution; Article 244 of the Criminal Code, and article 7 of the American Convention on Human Rights."
The violation refers to the right to be judged in freedom, which constitutes a principle arisen from presumption of innocence and denial to access to information contained in the case files. Another aspect highlighted in the report is the delay of court proceedings in which constant deferrals are produced in the preliminary hearings, trial hearings, challenges or denial of appeals lodged by military courts.
At the same time, in the sense of obstruction to justice, it is also indicated that the most common one is prohibition of any proceedings at military judicial courts unless they are vouched by Ramo Verde jail's director.
Most of the 64 arrested military agents are youngsters between 18 and 21 years old. They are there because of minor offences such as desertion but they are equally charged and kept there in the absence of a final judgment. In some cases, they spend between two and three years there waiting for the court ruling.
"All those 64 people should be released as they are charged with crimes that do not exceed six-year sentences. That is to say, they are in a situation similar to, the now famous, Rosita. So their trials under conditional release could be perfectly sped up because sometimes, they are sentenced with less years compared with the time they actually spend in jail," San Miguel maintains.
For its part, the DIM stands out as the most secretive enclosed imprisonment center. There remain the four accused from Econoinvest case and the famous "singer of the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces)."
Translated by Adrián Valera Villani
Cristian Fonseca, a businessman in La Candelaria district downtown Caracas, was doing the accounts in his small shop office on Sunday December 21, 2008. The Christmas shopping season kept him working late hours into the night. It was around 11 p.m. and his phone rang. A friend broke the bad news to him over the telephone.