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The regime of Nicolas Maduro is trying hard to limit and/or distort what the world sees regarding the continuing crisis in Venezuela. This includes propaganda broadcasts, disinformation spread via interviews with international media, and repression of foreign journalists operating within Venezuela. The degree of distortion is so great that even people who are not affiliated with journalism are expressing their concern.
As previously reported here, on the night of February 28, 2014, over 40 protesters were arrested in Altamira Square of Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, by the GNB (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana).
The prisoners were taken to a temporary detention center, from which screaming was heard shortly thereafter, according to the concerned neighbors (details + list of names: “Human Rights Violation Alert!“).
Later, the prisoners were transferred to the military base of Fuerte Tiuna. Initially, the prisoners were not permitted any communication, but eventually the authorities bowed to pressure from the social media outcry and allowed pro bono lawyers to make contact with the prisoners, collect information, and assess their condition. At 12:45 AM, the nonprofit organization “Asistencia UCAB” reported that their lawyers were still in Fuerte Tiuna, gathering information and providing assistance:
A esta hora (12:45am) nuestros abogados permanecen en Fuerte Tiuna cotejando la información de la lista de detenidos y brindando asistencia
— Asistencia UCAB (@asistenciaucab) March 1, 2014
One of the detainees was Francesca Commissari (@FrancescaCommi), an Italian photojournalist who was covering the protests for the newspaper El Nacional. Although Francesca was cleared of all charges, she still had to endure several days in horrible prison conditions, and the health consequences of being exposed to tear gas, which the GNB used indiscriminately in area-saturation quantities. Francesca’s mistreatment is not an isolated case. As CaracasChronicles points out:
The saddest part is that her case isn’t the only one. According to the National Press Workers’ Union (SNTP), there are 22 cases of journalists that were robbed of their equipment by the authorities.
Paraphrasing a quote from James Bond author Ian Fleming: Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Twenty-two times? That’s definitely a deliberate strategy, no question about it.
That Friday, Francesca and a Portuguese friend, also a freelance photographer, decided to go to Altamira and photograph the protest there. They knew that the demonstration would likely last a while, so their plan was to take some shots and return. When they arrived at the scene, they realized that the situation was far more tense than previous protests. “There were many more barricades, more protesters, much more National Guard and the shock was stronger,” Francesca said in an interview with ABC Color.
The confrontation turned violent, with the demonstrators throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails…
…and the GNB responding with tear gas and water cannons.
Francesca and her friend were watching the confrontation, when suddenly, several dozen motorcycles carrying GNB officers showed up next to them, with the troops firing buckshot and tear gas shells. The photojournalists started running, and took refuge in a service station nearby, where there were several people hiding. Despite her eyes burning from the tear gas that by then completely saturated the area, Francesca continued taking photos of pro-government agents shooting at protesters.
After the motorcycle troops passed, it seemed like the manhunt was over, when another group of agents appeared, this time on foot, doing a detailed sweep of the area. One of them spotted Francesca and the other stow-aways, and ordered them out. Her bag with the camera and documents was taken from her by force, and she was loaded up onto one of the GNB motorcycles and carried away.
When they arrived at the temporary detention area, she had to kneel next to the other detainees, all of whom were “very young, in the 20-year range”. Some of them were bleeding, others had multiple bruises – evidence of rough treatment during the arrest. Eventually, an officer came around to take a tally of minors and women; when Francesca raised her hand, he mocked her appearance, questioning whether she was a woman. The officer’s visit was followed by a general who assured the detainees that “all he wanted was to safeguard their human rights”, and called in a paramedic. The paramedic inspected the detainees and took photos.
The detainees were questioned over and over again. (Repeating the same question is a well-known psychological pressure tactic, designed to destabilize the prisoner, as well as possibly reveal inconsistencies in their answers. It was perfected by Stalin’s KGB interrogators; seems that Maduro’s forces have studied the Soviet playbook extensively.) Francesca’s ID was in the same bag that contained her camera, and which the GNB agents took away from her upon capture. She had no way to prove her identity, and had to answer the repeated questions, over and over again. Even her nationality was questioned, until she started speaking to them in Italian.
After the detainees were processed into the temporary detention facility, Francesca asked to contact the Italian Consulate. The request was denied. However, she managed to send a Twitter message to her roommate, using a phone borrowed from one of the other detainees.
A couple of hours later, the Altamira detainees were transferred to Fuerte Tiuna, the most significant military complex in Venezuela. Fuerte Tiuna is the workplace of the Ministry of Defense and functions as the headquarters of the National Guard – the Venezuelan Pentagon.
At Fuerte Tiuna, the women were separated from men and remained in a narrow room, leaving only to use the bathroom, for which trip they were handcuffed. The men were handcuffed all the time and had to sleep on the floor. Women were given at thin mat, but it hardly made a difference. Through the night, the prisoners were not given any food or water. Saturday at noon, they were served some rice and an arepa. From there until the next morning, the GNB again left them with no food or water.
At 7 PM on Saturday – almost 24 hours since their arrest – the prisoners were finally taken to the courthouse, where they heard charges against them for the first time. Throughout the process, all the detainees were handcuffed to each other. The Italian Consul informed Francesca that the Venezuelan authorities would most likely deport her. The entire group was tried en masse, with a charge of terrorism leveled against everyone. Mass arrests and collective judgments are a common occurrence in crisis-torn Venezuela, as authorities grow more desperate to quell the rebellion, and as a result, abuse their power more and more.
The lawyer assigned to Francesca informed her that her arrest record did not show her carrying any photographic equipment at any time. Of course, in the best tradition of tyrannical regimes, the record did show her carrying a Molotov cocktail. For a moment, Francesca was terrified that she would be imprisoned in a Venezuelan jail. In her interview with ABC Color, she admitted thinking - “My God, if I have to be put into one of those prisons, let them kill me instead.”
Finally realizing that they were dealing with foreign nationals, and with the various consulate representatives and lawyers present, the 3 prosecutors immediately asked for “full freedom” for Francesca and a 56-year-old Portuguese man who was among the detainees. In other words, the State recognized that their arrest was “a mistake”. However, they did not admit that the interrogations were performed by SEBIN agents (“Scientific Police”), and could not be used in evidence at trial since there was no lawyer present during the interrogations. But, the rule of law means very little in today’s Venezuela.
Francesca was released, but her camera and lenses were not returned to her. To add insult to injury, the stolen camera was discovered being posted for sale on an auction website. The cherry on top of the insult cake was the listed price – only 80 bolivars, equivalent to about $ 1. Yes, a Canon EOS 5D, which retails at approx. $ 1,900 for the camera body alone, not counting the 3 lenses, was sold for a BUCK. Welcome to Venezuela.
Esta es mi cámara, ya la están vendiendo. http://t.co/Dwnuodu91U
— Francesca Commissari (@FrancescaCommi) March 6, 2014
The camera is no longer listed on MercadoLibre, and the link posted in Francesca’s Tweet doesn’t work. But a screenshot has been preserved:
This is the only part of the camera that was returned to Francesca. Yes, just the lens cap. Image via @PirelaJimmy:
Francesca says that her case did have an immense impact on the international press, with many photo/journalists now being much more careful to avoid any contact with Venezuelan security forces. In addition, she mentioned “at least 50 examples of professionals” who had been beaten while covering the demonstrations, and/or had their photo/video equipment stolen by Venezuelan law enforcement, military, or security forces.
“There is no freedom of expression and, for a foreigner, especially a freelancer, it’s very complicated because there is no one to protect us”, Francesca added at the end of the interview.
In closing, I’d like to cite one of my favorite quotes from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident and author of the multi-volume epic denouncement of the Soviet regime “The GULag Archipelago” – forever etching the term “gulag” into the mass consciousness:
“Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence. Any man who has once proclaimed violence as his method, is inevitably forced to take the lie as his principle.”
As the regime of Nicolas Maduro grows more and more desperate, unable to control the nationwide uprising that has just passed the 30-day mark (February 12 – March 12), it is expected, and inevitable, that the man who took violence as his method, will continue taking lies – and suppression of truth – as his principle.
Caracas – New York
March 13, 2014
- ABCColor, “Relato de días de terror en Venezuela”, March 08, 2014, 08:34, Juan Carlos Lezcano F., Marta Escurra. Retrieved from http://www.abc.com.py/internacionales/dias-de-terror-1222511.html
- CaracasChronicles, “Francesca’s Story”, March 11, 2014, Gustavo Hernandez Acevedo. Retrieved from http://caracaschronicles.com/2014/03/11/francescas-story/
- CaracasChronicles, “The ongoing war on journalists, cont.”, March 04, 2014, Gustavo Hernandez Acevedo. Retrieved from http://caracaschronicles.com/2014/03/04/the-ongoing-war-on-journalists-cont/
- MercadoLibre.com.ve, search results. Retrieved from http://listado.mercadolibre.com.ve/se-vende-por-necesida#D