Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Friday 1 February 2019

Maduro the torturer

Speaking out against the Venezuelan government can lead to brutal reprisals. The battle in Caracas is not just about the economy, but freedom

There is no doubting the depth of the economic crisis in Venezuela – and little doubt that the country has been grotesquely mismanaged. There is also little support for the democratic legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro, still sitting as president. But it is underappreciated that Venezuela is not just starving its citizens and denying them their rights. Maduro’s is a brutal dictatorship, unabashed about terrorising its citizens.

Lorent Saleh now lives in exile in Spain.

In 2007, I was 18 and a student. I got angry at the government. But I am Venezuelan, so being an angry student is quite different to being an angry student elsewhere.

Hugo Chávez, the late president, closed privately owned means of communication in the country. He wanted to impose a constitutional reform to establish a communist dictatorship through a fraudulent referendum.

In the beginning, we didn’t exactly know what we were doing, but we knew we couldn’t let our freedom be robbed from us. Suddenly, it wasn’t just us – students – on the streets. Our parents, our friends, our teachers all joined us. We painted our hands white and raised them as symbols of peace. “Who are we? Students! What do we want? Freedom!” we called.

I became very vocal about the situation – going to demonstrations, doing TV interviews and posting photos of police brutality on social media. Many anti-government Venezuelan citizens were, and still are, being kidnapped, tortured, persecuted and murdered by government officials and military groups led by Chávez and the current Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro. I am now one of those citizens.

National Guard troops firing at opposition demonstrators

On September 4, 2014, I was abroad – in Bogotá, Colombia – in a taxi on my way to a class. Halfway to the university, a motorcycle started blocking the road. I was confused and irritated. The rider was wearing normal clothes. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Then he stepped off his motorcycle and walked towards the taxi. That’s when the fear crept up on me. “This can’t be normal,” I thought. I knew something bad was going to happen. He opened the door and asked me to come with him. He was a stranger, I didn’t recognise him and he didn’t have any official identification with him. So, naturally, I refused.

The motorcycle guy started making some phone calls. Meanwhile, I started to panic and called everyone and anyone I could get hold of. The motorcycle guy hung up the phone and minutes later several immigration officers arrived on the scene. I don’t exactly remember how many there were, but it was a few. They handcuffed me and took me to their car.

“What’s happening? Why are you doing this?” I asked. Nobody said a word. Nobody explained to me why I was being arrested or where they were going to take me. I was just put on a plane and sent to the Venezuelan border city, Cúcuta. Then, after a few hours, I was handed over to the Venezuelan police intelligence.

Two people decided to take away my right to see the sun. Maduro and former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos ordered their officials to kidnap me. I use the word “kidnap” because the reasoning behind my arrest was never told to me. I didn’t get a phone call, let alone a trial.

An anti-government activist is arrested during clashes in Caracas

I was locked up in a small room in a building known as “la Tumba” – the Tomb in English. On the outside, the Tomb looks like a modern office building in the middle of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas. It serves as the headquarters for the Bolivarian Intelligence Service. But head five storeys underground and you’ll find the basement in which I was tortured. No matter how hard you scream inside those cells, no one can hear you; take it from me. My life was literally black and white in there; the colours of the walls inside the concrete box.

In the Tomb I felt like Winston, the protagonist in George Orwell’s book, 1984. I was cold, constantly exposed to an intense white light and tortured with [loud noises]. I repeatedly received meals in the middle of the night to confuse my notion of time. I never knew what hour of the day it was, I wasn’t allowed to look at myself in the mirror or have any contact with other people. This solitary confinement made me feel inhuman. I started to cut the veins of my forearms just to get the attention of the torturers.

El Helicoide, the headquarters of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service

After more than two years, I was transferred to another infamous three-sided pyramid prison in Caracas: the Helicoide. Before I left the Tomb they made sure I was beaten unconscious. The Helicoide was different. There was less mental torture, and more of the physical: I was given electric shocks and beaten with bats, chains and pipes.

Throughout my four-year imprisonment, my family, girlfriend and friends ensured that the rest of the world knew what was happening to me. My extradition from Colombia was condemned by several foreign governments, the UN and other international human rights groups. It became obvious that I was never going to get a fair trial in Venezuela.

On October 12, 2018 I was released. They took me out of my cell and put me in a police car. I didn’t know I was being released until I realised that we were heading towards the international airport in Caracas. That’s when they told me: “You’re being exiled to Spain.”

Just as I was about to enter the plane, the Spanish ambassador allowed me to make a phone call: I called my mother. I tried to calm her down. I reassured her that I was in good hands, that I was sitting in a plane next to Spanish government officials, on my way to Madrid.

Demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas

There are still many innocent people behind bars in Venezuela who deserve the same freedom I got. I often thought I was going to die in the Tomb, but I learned that nothing worthwhile is easily achieved. I didn’t give up. I’m now 30 years old.

I have one message for those who find it difficult to imagine what it’s like to live in a country such as mine: value the things that have become invisible to the eye; value the sky, the moon and the colours I couldn’t see for 49 months; value the fact that you’re able to live in a democratic country. You have guaranteed rights, so defend them when you can. Once you lose them, it’s difficult to get them back.

Lorent Saleh won the Sakharov Prize in 2017, awarded by the European Parliament to people who have fought for human rights and freedom of thought