Illegal detention in Venezuela is on the rise, according to a human rights group

When his sister Sugled Gasparini waved goodbye to him, she did not know that this was the beginning of a nightmare that had yet to come to its conclusion.

Instead of returning home to El Hatillo, a leafy neighborhood in the southeast of the capital Caracas, Jaira, a mechanic in the city, was arrested, according to his sister, by the Venezuelan Military Counterintelligence Administration (DGCIM in Spanish acronym), one of the most feared forces in the security apparatus of ousted President Nicolas Maduro.

The government, through Attorney General Tarek William Saab, dismissed the report, saying CNN had no jurisdiction to judge the situation in Venezuela.

Although the goal of the DGCIM is to act only in the armed forces as a police officer, it is known that he detained civilians, which is a sign of the growing repression of the Maduro government. It is not clear how much the AG office knows about their activities or attacks.

But Sugled did not know this: for the first 10 days after Jairus’ detention, she only knew that she missed her brother.

In an interview with CNN, Sugled spoke about the anxiety of not knowing what happened. She and her mother searched for Jairo in hospitals and morgues, and even among the large Venezuelan diaspora abroad. Sugled sent a picture of her brother through WhatsApp chats of migrants to Ecuador, but heard nothing.

Three days after his disappearance, Jairus ’girlfriend officially filed a report with the Venezuelan police about the missing person, but it took police five days to respond. They said her boyfriend might be locked up. Jair’s girlfriend refused to talk to CNN for fear of security surveillance in Venezuela.

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It was not until March 28 that Sugled heard Jair’s voice again – in a phone call from Boleita, the infamous detention center in Caracas. He told his sister that he was fine and that they had had several short phone conversations since then, she told CNN.

“It was exactly 10 days,” she said. “Ten days without knowing about him. Ten days to look for him in hospitals, morgues, 10 days when a mother wanted to see her son. That’s not fair.”

‘Forced disappearance’

The Sugled story is far from unique in Venezuela. According to an RFK report, the “imposed disappearances” became a model under Maduro.

The International Criminal Court describes forced disappearance as the arrest, detention or abduction of persons “or with the approval, support or consent of a State or political organization, followed by a refusal to recognize that deprivation of liberty or to provide information on the fate or accommodation of those persons.”

There were 524 such disappearances in 2019, compared to 200 the previous year, according to the Foro Penal, a Venezuelan human rights NGO that collected data used in the RFK report. And there were 235 of them in 2020, according to the RFK report, and “14 of those people remain missing from May 31, 2020, the date of finalization of this report.”

The rationale for the disappearances varies: According to the report, Maduro’s security forces use them to silence prominent political opponents, to set an example to the general population, to instill fear in political opponents or to extract valuable information.

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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is coming to his annual address to the nation at the National Constituent Assembly on January 14th.

Angelita Baeyens, one of the authors of the RFK report, cited one specific case as typical: Ariana Granadillo disappeared twice in 2018 because, she and her lawyer say, she lived in the house of a distant relative, a National Guard colonel who left and took up arms against Maduro.

In an interview with CNN, Granadillo said she had never participated in political activities before her detention. She said one of the kidnappers, also from DGCIM, told her that he was detained as a way to get hold of a relative, Oswaldo García Palomo, who lived in Canada in 2018 but returned to Venezuela in 2019, after which he army detained,

Attorney General Saab dismissed the RFK’s findings when he contacted CNN last week. “I hope they also have a report ready that shows the U.S. police are the most criminal on the planet,” Saab said of the unrest in the U.S., sparked by outrage over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

John Jair’s detention appears similar because his sister claims he was detained because he spoke to a person wanted by the government.

But the real reason remains unknown. The DGCIM failed to issue an order to justify Jair’s arrest, and his lawyers were unable to speak to him.

Under the cover of Covid-19

The practice of enforced disappearances in Venezuela is not new. The RFK report documents cases from the last two years. In July 2019, it was announced by Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights investigation into extrajudicial killings in the hands of Maduro’s security forces, who called for one such force to disband. Maduro wrote a letter to Bachelet to dismiss the contents of that report.
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That removal did not happen, and a coronavirus pandemic is only exacerbating the situation, the report’s authors claim. While in 2019 the average duration of disappearances was only a few days, detentions are longer because courts are closed, movement is restricted and most of the Venezuelan bureaucracy is in prison.

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A spokesman for Voluntad Popular, a political organization that opposes Maduro, said cases like Jaira happen almost daily.

Alfredo Romero, president of the Bar Association working on this type of case in Venezuela, says the lockout has triggered huge violations of the rights of the defense.

Lawyers can no longer visit detainees or ask the court to access court documents. In some cases, detainees were transferred from one prison to another without their legal team ever knowing, for health reasons, according to Romero.

Meanwhile, John Jairo remains in custody, more than three months after he disappeared. His sister offers hope to see him soon. “I just want to see him free.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the name Sugled Gasparini.

Audrey Ash reported from Atlanta, Stefano Pozzebon from Bogota, and Jorge Luis Perez Valery from Caracas.

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