Four years in Maduro’s prison: A Venezuelan dissident speaks

Renzo Prieto. (Bloomberg pic)

CARACAS: When Renzo Prieto was released from prison last month his hair extended to his waist.

After his arrest in 2014, the Venezuelan student leader vowed not to cut it while he remained behind bars — a protest against his imprisonment for organizing demonstrations against the authoritarian regime of President Nicolas Maduro.

Held more than four years in the menacing Helicoide prison, Prieto, 31, was protected from most physical abuse because he was a political prisoner. But he heard the screams of inmates being tortured, he saw their bruises, cuts and burns and he participated in a 15-day hunger strike demanding freedom.

Prieto, now a member of the powerless Congress, has spent more time as a political prisoner than any other Venezuelan elected official.

“It’s a record I wish didn’t have,” he said in an interview June 22. “But it’s one I’ll accept if it means preventing something like this from happening again.”

Maduro has granted conditional freedom to dozens of jailed dissidents after winning a widely condemned re-election in an attempt to stave off escalating sanctions and international isolation. Some have been exiled. Those who remain are officially barred from talking to the press, but Prieto provided a rare, first-hand account of a system that has prompted international condemnation.

Bloomberg News was unable to corroborate many specifics, but his story echoes reports by independent rights organizations. Last month, the Organization of American States accused Venezuela of crimes against humanity including torture, rape and more than 8,000 extrajudicial executions.

Requests for comment sent to Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez weren’t answered.

Wanted man
Prieto was arrested on May 10, 2014, when Venezuela was convulsed by anti-government protests over runaway inflation and shortages of staple foods. A warrant was issued while he was organizing demonstrations in the Venezuelan Andes. Rather than fleeing, as friends and family urged, Prieto travelled to Caracas after the arrest of movement leader Leopoldo Lopez.

“I knew myself, and I knew that if I left I would only regret it,” said Prieto, who joined the student movement in 2007. “While there was not the repression than that there is now, I always said that this government would end up jailing us for whatever reason.”

After a march, plainclothes intelligence police began tailing Prieto. They chased him across east Caracas; he ran through traffic as they fired into the air and eventually caught him. They hauled him to the Helicoide, where officers threatened him with wire cutters, pliers and shocks.

The jail is in the basement of the pyramidal building, designed in the 1950s as a mall. The gray structure is atop a hilltop slum, and its domed roof is visible in much of the city — a constant reminder of the government opponents and common criminals imprisoned and abused beneath.

Held untried
Prieto, who denies wrongdoing, was initially held on charges including drug trafficking, criminal association, possessing explosives, fabricating weapons — and blocking traffic. Many were later dropped, but it didn’t matter: He never got to present his case. The trial was delayed more than 30 times as police refused to take him to court or the judge simply didn’t show.

In prison, Prieto was never alone, watching it fill over the years as the government jailed more and more dissidents. At one point, he shared a cell with 15 other inmates, many sleeping on mattresses piled on the floor. Prieto said he was denied fresh air for his first six months. Guards threatened to confine him in a cramped cell or bathroom for disobeying orders or simply speaking with other inmates.

Three meals a day were guaranteed. Prisoners paid for drinking water, and those with money or support got extra food from loved ones or bribed guards. The government struggled to keep the water running and the lights on. When the power failed, the jail was suffocating, and inmates lay motionless in dim rooms. Prieto said he stopped noticing the stench, but at one particularly long stretch without water, “I realized things had to be bad when I started seeing flies.”

King rat
He spent his days making portraits of saints and religious figures from discarded aluminium foil, playing battleship on paper scraps and exercising. Still, he was luckier than most. Prieto says he witnessed prisoners handcuffed and blindfolded for days or forced to sleep in rat-infested stairwells. Guards beat inmates’ buttocks with boards until they turned deep purple.

His political status largely spared him physical abuse. In fact, he won office behind bars thanks to a provision allowing lawmakers to name a supplementary congressman in the event of their incapacity. A fellow student leader who won in the 2015 opposition landslide chose him, giving him parliamentary immunity from prosecution. Authorities held him nonetheless, and Amnesty International and the United Nations called for his release.

The following year, a dozen prisoners, Prieto among them, launched a 15-day hunger strike demanding freedom. Prieto shed more than 20 pounds. Ten participants were released; he remained behind bars.

Not all protests were peaceful. In May, inmates revolted after a prisoner was beaten. Videos of the daylong riot showed inmates smashing lights and prying open cells.

Suddenly free
Then, days after Maduro’s re-election, Prieto and dozens of political prisoners were granted conditional freedom.

Prieto since has become a full-fledged congressman, the legislator who originally tapped having gone into exile. He is prohibited from leaving the country and must present himself to authorities once a month.

The country is much different from the one he remembered, with hyperinflation and hungry citizens picking through trash. Maduro is more entrenched and the institution in which Prieto serves — the opposition-led Congress — has been rendered powerless.

“I’m going to do what I can — on the outside — to better conditions and win freedom for all those who are still behind bars,” he said.

According to the legal group Penal Forum, Venezuela still holds 275 political prisoners.