Detained, disappeared, and tortured — for tweeting — in Venezuela

  1. Jaimes was taken at night and no word about his fate for over a month
  2. At least 18 people detained for tweeting since 2014
  3. Political persecution aggravating economic crisis
  4. 'Pedro Jaimes is a hostage of the intelligence services'

At about 11 a.m. on May 10, 2018, Pedro Jaimes Criollo was driving his nephew, Hunaldo, to their home inside a gated compound in Los Teques, in the northern Venezuelan state of Miranda. Approaching the compound he noticed something suspicious – a car was following them. Inside were four men.

Jaimes is a 52-year-old self-employed businessman – a meteorology and aviation aficionado who regularly posted related updates on Twitter to his almost 80,000 followers under the @Aereometeo username. According to his sister, Trina Jaimes, her brother left early that morning to buy state-subsidized harina pan, or cornmeal flour. He’d picked up his nephew on his way home.

A screenshot of a portrait of Pedro Jaimes wearing rimless reading glasses and a red and black chequered long-sleeve shirt. Source: Espacio Público/CC-BY-SA 4.0
A screenshot of a portrait of Pedro Jaimes. Source: Espacio Público/CC-BY-SA 4.0

Jaimes crossed the compound’s gate and brought his vehicle to a stop outside the house he shared with Trina and Hunaldo. The trailing car stopped behind his, blocking his exit. The pair grew nervous, Hunaldo later said. Kidnapping is widespread in Venezuela.

The four men stepped out of the car and asked Jaimes and Hunaldo for their identification. They said they were intelligence officers from the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN), Venezuela’s national intelligence agency, a group implicated in numerous human rights violations by domestic and international rights groups, as well as by the United States.

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They were there to take Jaimes away for interrogation. They wouldn’t say why, nor did they show Jaimes an arrest warrant or formal identification, according to Trina, who witnessed the episode.

“What’s happening? No one’s explained anything to me,” Trina, 57, recalls. She was pleading with the men as they argued with her brother. She, too, asked them to produce an arrest warrant – the men told her they didn’t need one to take her brother.

Jaimes panicked and bolted into the house. Three of the men chased him while the fourth held Trina, she recalls. They caught up to Jaimes, pinned him down, took him outside, and bundled him into their unmarked vehicle.

Trina didn’t have a clue why SEBIN agents had taken her brother. She didn’t know where he was being taken. She told WikiTribune one of the intelligence officers said her brother would be taken to El Helicoide, a SEBIN prison in northern Caracas originally designed as the world’s first drive-through mall (CityLab). When she showed up at the prison later that day, however, she was told Jaimes wasn’t being held there.

The answers to her frantic questions came that night at around 8 p.m. Jaimes called his sister from the Helicoide. When she asked why he’d been taken, he replied: “For tweeting, Trina, for tweeting.”

Detained for tweeting

The SEBIN detained Jaimes after he posted two tweets with screenshots of Venezuela’s presidential plane’s publicly accessible flight plan on his Twitter account on May 3, according to Espacio Público (in Spanish), a nonprofit human rights organization in Venezuela. This was also confirmed in a tweet by Telesur journalist Madelein Garcia.

Espacio Público told WikiTribune Jaimes took the images from FlightRadar24, a flight tracking website: one as the aircraft took off in the northern state of Aragua, and the second as it was making its final approach to Simón Bolívar International Airport, Venezuela’s main aviation hub.

Human Rights Watch is one of numerous sources which believe his offence was tweeting the president’s travel plans.

A screenshot of Aereometeo's twitter account. Source: Twitter
A screenshot of Aereometeo’s Twitter account. Source: Twitter

Jaimes is one of 250 people who remain arbitrarily detained by Venezuela’s security forces, according to Foro Penal, a Venezuelan human rights NGO. These people are being held for perceived or genuine opposition to President Nicolás Maduro’s government, according to the Office of the United High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Foro Penal and the OHCHR call them “political prisoners” – deprived of several of their human rights in breach of international and domestic law.

Foro Penal director Gonzalo Himiob told WikiTribune the cumulative figure of political prisoners since January 2014 is 1,536, of whom 1,286 have been released under probation.

Among these detainees are well-known political figures, such as former opposition leader Leopoldo López, currently under house arrest in Caracas. But there are lesser-known prisoners, such as student activist and leader Villca Fernández, who was arbitrarily detained by the SEBIN in January 2016 for tweeting to Diosdado Cabello (Amnesty International), vice president of Venezuela’s ruling party. Fernández spent over two years imprisoned at the Helicoide before being released in June 2018 and forced to leave the country (El Nacional, in Spanish).

But, according to his sister, Jaimes is not a political or social anti-government leader.

“He’s a calm person, a homebody. Always helping around the house,” Trina said. “He doesn’t mess with anybody. He’s very well liked by the neighbors and his friends.”

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Ricardo Rosales, a lawyer with Venezuelan human rights NGO Espacio Público, has been trying to get a Miranda state court to recognize his organization as Jaimes’s attorneys. The organization told WikiTribune Jaimes has been criminalized for exercising his right to freedom of expression and accused the Venezuelan government of violating several of his human rights.

The Vicepresidency of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela – the government body in charge of overseeing the SEBIN – did not respond to several requests for comment.

Selective repression

Foro Penal recorded 12,320 arbitrary detentions from January 2014 to April 2018, according to an OHCHR report published in June 2018. Most of these detentions took place during the nationwide protests that rocked Venezuela in 2014 and 2017. Since then, the Venezuelan government has resorted to more selective “arbitrary and unlawful detentions” to scare and silence any remaining political opposition, according to the report.

“Security forces, notably the intelligence services, have been arresting individuals who are in a position to mobilize and organise people, or are members of certain social groups,” says the report. “They include particularly political and social activists, students, human rights defenders, media workers, and members of the armed forces.”

Since 2014, Foro Penal has recorded another 17 cases of people being arbitrarily detained by Venezuelan security forces for tweeting. But, according to the organization’s director, Himiob, Jaimes is the only one still behind bars. Three leading Venezuelan human rights lawyers – including Himiob – told WikiTribune Jaimes was being unjustly persecuted and that there is no legal or legitimate basis to criminalize the sharing of public information.

Himiob said the Venezuelan government is using Jaimes to send a message to other Twitter users who might be tempted to post dissenting or critical information online.

“The objective is to neutralize the group through the criminalization of some of its members, usually picked at random like what just happened with [Pedro Jaimes],” he said.

Political persecution is compounding an economic and social crisis of national proportions. The International Organization for Migration estimated that 1.6 million Venezuelans were living abroad in 2017, up from roughly 700,000 in 2015. Just last year, some 900,000 Venezuelans emigrated as the once-prosperous Caribbean country grapples with the world’s highest rate of inflation – projected to hit one million percent by the end of 2018, according to the International Monetary Fund – and severe shortages of basic goods such as food and medicine. (Precise migration estimates are unavailable because President Maduro’s government does not publish official statistics.)

Eighty-seven percent of Venezuelan households were living under the poverty line in 2017 compared to 48 percent in 2014, according to the National Survey on Living Conditions (in Spanish), a yearly study conducted by three major Venezuelan universities. Last year, 61 percent of Venezuelan households were living in extreme poverty.

(More on WikiTribune: “Venezuelans fleeing home turn to Argentina for employment and stability”; “Soccer save: How karma (or coincidence) kicked in to rescue a struggling immigrant”)

No word for weeks

From May 12 until July 29, Jaimes’s family didn’t seen him. Two days after his detention, Jaimes was brought before a court in Los Teques, where he learned he’d be charged with three national security-related crimes that could see him face at least 22 years in prison, Rosales said.

Jaimes was represented at his hearing by Luis Manzo, a public defender imposed on him by the Venezuelan government, whom Espacio Público says has not been in contact with Jaimes’ family to update them on the case (Espacio Público, in Spanish). At the hearing, the provisional judge ruled that Jaimes posed a flight risk and remanded him into custody at the Metropolitan Yare Penitentiary Center pending trial. However, Jaimes was not taken there, according to Rosales.

Instead, Jaimes disappeared for 33 days. Neither his family nor Espacio Público, which took up his case on May 17, received any news of his whereabouts or his condition until June 15, when Jaimes managed to call his sister (Espacio Público, in Spanish).

He told her he suffered a broken rib after agents beat him on several occasions to make him reveal passwords to his social media accounts, Trina told WikiTribune. He also said he was being kept at the Helicoide along with another 10 prisoners in a four-by-five-meter cell with no natural light. He hadn’t received proper medical attention for his broken rib. The pain limited his sleep and caused him to faint on several occasions.

An aerial view of the Helicoide, in northern Caracas. Source: Damián D. Fossi Salas/ Flickr
An aerial view of the Helicoide, in northern Caracas. Source: Damián D. Fossi Salas/ Flickr

Since then, Jaimes’s condition has worsened, according to an anonymous source who spoke with Trina. He’s depressed, has developed abscesses in his legs, as well as oral herpes, and the pain produced by his still-untreated broken rib has intensified. He has yet to receive medical treatment.

On July 29, Trina saw her brother for the first time in almost three months. The reunion took place at the Helicoide.

Bureaucratic barricades

Rosales said Jaimes’ constitutional right to a fair trial and due process have been violated several times by the Venezuelan government. Espacio Público says the government is using administrative procedures – some of them made up, according to Rosales – to prevent them from representing Jaimes.

To this day, Espacio Público says it hasn’t been allowed to check Jaimes’s case file because the government won’t recognize the organization as his lawyer, despite his sister Trina appointing them as such on June 1. Rosales said the court in Los Teques insists on having Jaimes personally ratify the Espacio Público lawyers as his representatives, which he says is an arbitrary measure with no legal basis.

“It’s a rhetorical and procedural tangle to deny us the case file,” Rosales said.

Rosales says Espacio Público decided to go along with the court’s argument. But when they requested on three separate occasions in early June to have Jaimes brought before the court to have him ratify them as his lawyers, the SEBIN ignored the court’s summons to transfer Jaimes to Los Teques to complete the procedure.

Ana Leonora Acosta, a Venezuelan human rights lawyer not involved in Jaimes’s defense, but who has represented several high-profile political prisoners, told WikiTribune the SEBIN plays a key role in “persecuting anyone who opposes the government … with practically plenipotentiary powers.”

“When you go to the SEBIN, they say, ‘Here, a judge’s order is no good. Here, we are the law and we make the law,’” she said.

Jaimes’s case echoes the experience of other political prisoners in Venezuela, including ill treatment, poor conditions of detention, lack of access to medical care, and violation of the right to fair trial and due process, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“Pedro Jaimes is a hostage of Venezuela’s intelligence services. The responsibility for his life and physical integrity lies exclusively on Venezuelan authorities, including the head of SEBIN,” HRW’s senior Americas researcher Tamara Taraciuk told WikiTribune.

Espacio Público and the court of Los Teques agreed to meet at the Helicoide on June 15 to check on Jaimes and complete the procedure, but Rosales says the judge never showed up. Since early June, the organization has lodged over half a dozen complaints with the court in Los Teques “denouncing the systematic violation of Pedro Jaimes’s right to an attorney.” Rosales says Espacio Público hasn’t received a reply.

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On July 25, Jaimes was supposed to show up in Los Teques for his preliminary hearing, where the court would have had to decide whether Jaimes’ case should proceed to trial. But he was not brought to the hearing. The outside of the court building was under reconstruction and Jaimes’ case wouldn’t be heard that day, Espacio Público was told. The defendant, his family, and his lawyers would have to wait for the court to set a new date.

Rosales said he doesn’t know how long this will take since the Judicial Circuit of Los Teques started a process of “judicial rotation” on July 16, leaving many of the area’s courts without a presiding judge. Espacio Público says the legal basis of this process is unknown.

‘We have to fight’

Jaimes’s detention has left his sister, Trina, as the family’s breadwinner. She’s a retired schoolteacher who suffers from fibromyalgia, a medical condition characterized by chronic widespread pain and a heightened pain response to pressure.

She queues for hours for affordable food and medicine in Venezuela’s increasingly beleaguered and scarcity-riddled economy, and said her health has deteriorated further because of the stress caused by her brother’s detention.

“Now I have to go out and do all the things he was doing,” she said. “My situation has become very complicated.”

However, she said she won’t leave Venezuela despite her brother’s detention.

“I’m really sorry for those who are leaving – people will have their own reasons. But I say we have to fight and keep going forward.”

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