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For Venezuela’s government, protesting is ‘terrorism’

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Illustrative Image by andresAzp, available in Flickr: “Evening protests on February 15th in Altamira. Caracas, Venezuela. Published under Creative Commons licence (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Six protesters have died, President Maduro’s government is accused of using torture on protesters to obtain false confessions of “terrorism,” and evidence of police abuse is circulating on social media. Despite the clampdown, the protests in Venezuela haven’t stopped since the end of March.

“The money is never enough, there are no medicines, and the streets are full of criminals, and you won’t let me protests on top of it all?” one protester, who was tortured by the police, said in a testimony detailed below.

Eleven countries in the region condemned the death of six protesters and issued a public statement urging the Venezuelan government to stop the violence and ensure the security of the protesters who planned to hit the streets again on April 19.

The government-run media continues to call protesters “terrorists” and Maduro is encouraged his supporters to “take action” on the streets too. Maduro has warned that the protests on April 19 would be confronted by the Venezuelan National Militia, officially known as the Nacional Bolivarian Militia.

Protests in Venezuela started after the separation of power controversy on March 30, when the Supreme Court of Justice effectively nullified the National Assembly, assuming its role and permitting Maduro to take over some functions of the legislature. The decision was short-lived — the court reversed course days later, but protests have continued due to the deep economic, social and political crisis that has shaken the country the last few years.

Protesters are closely following the case of testimony by the Sánchez brothers, militants of the opposition party Primero Justicia, who admitted, allegedly under torture, that they were responsible of violence during the protests and “terrorist acts” encouraged by the opposition political parties.

From a public post on Facebook, journalist and Global Voices collaborator Luis Carlos Díaz explains the case of the Sánchez brothers:

“The Vice President asked the ‘maximum penalty’ for them and for others that had been arrested. In unison, the choir of pro-government voices accused them of being terrorists. In their media, payed with our money, they’ve been referring to protesters as ‘terrorists’… This is how two students are being sent to one of the worst prisons in the world, leaving behind them a trail of abuse, and broken laws. What I’ve been trying to explain in many paragraphs, the chavismo-base militant celebrates it this way: ‘we’ve jailed two terrorists, and we’ll jail more’. To do it, they’re willing to support torture, forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and show trials. It doesn’t matter to them. After supporting a dictatorship to keep themselves in power, what can be worse?”

Documenting government abuse on social media

Torture allegations and police brutality are being documented on social and independent media.

Through the online media portal ProDavinci, journalist Valentina Oropeza collected testimonies around one case of police brutality against a young man that was ambushed by police and brutally beaten. He was finally taken to the hospital, where doctors spread the word on social media to contact his parents. The doctors and nurses refused to let their patient go with the guards, and this, it seems, made all the difference:

“They started to beat me savagely on the floor. What I did was covering my head. They hit my back, ribs, arms, legs. They hit me everywhere with that baton of theirs. They even hit me in the face with a helmet and their police machete. They gave me blows, kicks and hit me with the butt of their (tear)bomb-launcher. They pulled my hair really hard, and one of them tried to stick his finger in my butt. They were about 20 guards, and there were two PNB (Bolivarian National Police). I couldn’t see any of my friends anymore.”

And he continued:

“The hardest part wasn’t the blows, but the psychological terror. While they we beating me they’d say: ‘we’re going to kill you’, ‘we’ll rape you’, ‘we’ll kill your family, you bastard’, ‘who told you to get yourself in this?’. And that was exactly what I thought: who told me to get in this? Things are so difficult. The money is never enough, there are no medicines, and the streets are full of criminals, and you won’t let me protests on top of it all?

“My mom told me afterwards that the doctor who was treating me was the one who confronted the guard and told him that they couldn’t take me because I was a patient. She told me that the nurses, other doctors, everyone got in the way to keep me in. Who knows what would have happened otherwise. After that, the guards came back and made my dad sign a paper saying that I was alright and that they didn’t do anything. We don’t have a copy of that paper; we don’t know what they can do… Apparently, they wanted to charge us with terrorism. They say there are people that get released on parole and other that get ten years in prison.”
More complaints have been made through Instagram and Twitter, like the one made by Hugo Santaromita, who shared the testimony of a doctor and images of a private hospital in Caracas after police groups allegedly threw a tear gas bomb inside:

“Yesterday, April 13 around 7pm my uncle, 59 years old, went to train in the Trigal Norte neighbourhood in Valencia and was kidnapped by the SEBIN (the Bolivarian Intelligence Service) without saying a word. They took him to a hidden place in Naguanagua (anther neighbourhood in the city) where he was gagged, tortured, beaten and had his hair shaven while receiving death threats for being allegedly linked to the ‘resistance’. They wanted to interrogate him to find information about the leaders of the protests against Nicolás Maduro’s government. They suffocated him with a pillow. They cut his hair, eyebrows and beard and threatened to kill him. After the interrogations, they released him for his [bad] condition. They almost killed him unawarely. I should say that my uncle suffers from a lung insufficiency after [he was attacked] during a robbery. What these cowards do is to make people afraid so they don’t go out. We’ll soon have justice. Keep strong. Be vigilant, Valencia!”

This article written and translated by Laura Vidal originally appeared on Global Voices on April 19, 2017