Mobilized Opposition Faces Arrests and Detentions

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde

The recent wave of detentions of opposition leaders and activists has left opposition party Voluntad Popular reeling, and human rights groups searching for vocabulary. In the run up to the the September 1 demonstration, the “Taking of Caracas,” at least 7 opposition leaders were either effectively arrested or being sought by the authorities.

Government actions have specially targeted the leadership of Voluntad Popular (VP), the party of the jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López. The government says that VP is the main actor in an opposition conspiracy to generate violence which would lead to up to a coup d’état and has said that detained VP leaders carried explosives and detonators in their cars at the time of their detention.

The conspirators, says the government, were planning both a general massacre the day of the Taking of Caracas, and “selective assassinations” of political leaders. The government has also linked the detained VP leaders in what it claims are “paramilitary camps” it says it recently dismantled in and around Caracas.

On August 27 Daniel Ceballos, VP’s ex-Mayor of San Cristobal, who had been serving house arrest for his alleged support of violent opposition protest in February 2014, was taken into custody from his home at 3:00am in the morning by the intelligence police (SEBIN.) An order of August 25 signed by a judge said that his house arrest benefits had been suspended and that he should be detained.

In the morning of August 29 another leader of VP, Jon Goicochea, was intercepted and taken by what witnesses described as heavily armed squad of security agents while driving in eastern neighborhood of Caracas. Nine hours after his arrest relatives had no information about the whereabouts of Goicochea, until PSUV Congressman Diosdado Cabello declared that he had been arrested by the SEBIN.

On August 30 Carlos Melo, a leader of the opposition party Avanzada Progresista, saw also detained by the SEBIN in the area around the offices of the VP party in Caracas.

It was in a press conference in August 31, the day before the Taking of Caracas, that the Minister of Interior, General Néstor Reverol, linked the three detained opposition leaders, Ceballos, Goicochea and Melo, to a plot, first to aid Ceballos in escaping his house arrest, and then to create a “massacre” in September 1 which would lead to a coup d’état. Involved in the “terrorist plot” were also, according to Reverol, a couple arrested that day in the State of Carabobo, carrying  air-rifles in their car.

Reverol also linked another VP leader in the State of Zulia, Lester Toledo to the presumed conspiracy. An arrest order was issued against him on August 31. According to David Smolansky, mayor of El Hatillo near Caracas and also VP member, Toledo has gone into hiding. But the head of the SEBIN, Gustavo González López claims that Toledo is in the Colombian border city of Maicao and that he has asked the Colombian authorities for his arrest. In the most recent arrest related to the September 1 protest, on September 5 and official working for the National Assembly, Alejandro Puglia, was detained charged with having flown a drone over the opposition crowd that day. Drones and personal aircraft flights had been prohibited by the Interior Ministry.

Yet another recent case involves not the detention, but the “citation” by the SEBIN of the Mayor of El Hatillo municipality, David Smolansky, also a VP leader. On September 8 a heavily armed SEBIN commission handed Smolansky a letter signed by the Director of Strategic Investigation of the intelligence police asking the Mayor to go to his offices next day. The letter explained that the SEBIN had “opened and investigation” of Smolasky for his declarations about the detention conditions of Goicochea. Smolansky had said that Goicochea was being held “in a cell full of excrements.”

Smolansky refused to go to the SEBIN offices claiming that, not the police body, but the State’s prosecutors are competent to open investigations on citizens. Instead Smolansky, accompanied by National Assembly’s President Ramos Allup, went to the General Prosecutor’s office to ask the office to look into the matter. Ombudsman Tarek William Saab declared that the citation by the SEBIN was “inconsistent” and “ambiguous” because the citation letter did not specify if a public prosecutor had asked for an investigation on Smolasky.

Other detentions since September 1 have been related to the now famous Villa Rosa incident. On September 2, a day after the Taking of Caracas, President Maduro was the object of a strident pot banging protest by residents of Villa Rosa, a barrio in the Venezuelan island of Margarita. The videos of the protest became viral within a few hours.

Early reports suggested that at least 30 residents had been detained the day after the protest, but they were soon released. Only the prominent journalist Braulio Jatar, who first published the videos remains detained. Some human rights organizations have accused the government of “forced disappearance” because of the circumstances in which Jatar and other opposition leaders were detained.

In the early morning September 3, relatives of Braulio Jatar, the journalist who had first published the videos of the Villa Rosa incident, said that they suspected he had been detained on his way to his radio station where he had scheduled an interview.

According to relatives, Jatar was held more than 34 hours without access to a lawyer. In fact, the family says it was only certain that Jatar had been detained by police 12 hours after his disappearance when a SEBIN group showed up to search the family residence, according to family members without a search order, but wearing masks and wielding assault rifles. “I had no option but to let them in because they threatened to take the door down”, said Jatar’s wife.  The family was told they could send him personal items and food. 48 hours after being detained Braulio Jatar was taken to hear the charges against him from a judge.

According to his lawyer, Jatar is being charged with money laundering (legitimación de capitales). The evidence is a suitcase with money found in his car. No mention was made during his audience about the Villa Rosa videos, but Jatar’s lawyer said that he has information that the government would try to frame him as the financier of an alleged terrorist plot against the upcoming meeting of States members of the Non-Aligned Movement, to be held in Margarita on September 17. As a citizen of Chile, Jatar is receiving support from local Chilean consular authorities.

Human rights NGO COFAVIC issued a press release in which it expresses concern for what it views as cases of “forced disappearance.” Specifically COFAVIC mentions the detentions of Goicochea and Jatar. The NGO explains that according to the Bolivarian Constitution a case is typified as forced disappearance if the detainee is not granted immediate access to a lawyer and to relatives, even in cases when the detainee is later confirmed to have been arrested by police. COFAVIC urges the Venezuelan State to launch an investigation into the cases of Goicochea and Jatar. During the hours in which Goicochea’s whereabouts where still uncertain, the Human Rights Center of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello wrote on Twitter (@CDH_UCAB) that the lack of information on a detainee amounted to a “forced disappearance.”

A wider group of human rights NGOs, including PROVEA and the Centro para la Paz y DDHH of the Universidad Central de Venezuela, also issued a press release which speaks of Jatar’s detention a “brief forced disappearance.” They describe the irregularities of his arrest and ask the General Attorney Luisa Ortega Díaz, and Ombudsman Tarek William Saab to look into the case and ensure that his rights are safeguarded. The press release closes with a direct petition for the release of Jatar.

The UN Human Rights Committee recently argued that even a brief forced disappearance was a crime, with reference to an Argentinian case in which a prisoner was kept for seven days without his family knowing his whereabouts.

President Maduro has hinted that there more detentions are on the way. “We have captured weapons, mercenaries, money and we are in the lookout to capture other militants of terror and of the right. I will not falter in the face of terrorism and rightist extremism, whoever has to fall will fall, under the law, upholding the Constitution.” The vice-president of the ruling PSUV party, Diosdado Cabello, declared about the preventive arrest of opposition leaders: “before they kill someone with their violent actions, we are going to put them in jail.”