Venezuela, Twitter, and Crimes Against Humanity

Por Andres Cañizalez* (IPS)

The Helicoide building in Caracas, the current headquarters of the Venezuelan State Security (Sebin) and one of its jails. Foto: Flakiz/Flickr

HAVANA TIMES – In mid-September, the United Nations Human Rights Council approved the renewal, for another two years, of the mandate of the Fact-Finding Mission to determine and document the existence of crimes against humanity in Venezuela, under the government of Nicolás Maduro.

In this way, the Council endorsed the work that this independent mission had already been conducting for one year. Weeks before, the team of experts had released a devastating report, prepared after reviewing slightly over 3,000 cases of which it rigorously documented 233.

In order to fully understand what is happening in Venezuela in terms of Human Rights, it may be convenient to pay close attention to one story, one of the many that make up this report. Due to our professional bias, we have stopped at a case clearly linked to freedom of expression and information.

For this piece, I have picked the events involving Pedro Jaimes Criollo, described in the UN report as from paragraph 727. This case clearly exposes the repressive policy on expression and information. Tweeting just turns out to be a crime, as the government of Nicolás Maduro understands it.

An aviation aficionado, this Venezuelan tweeter’s handles were @AereoMeteo and @AereoMeteo2. Disseminating meteorological and aeronautical information was his hobby, until May 2018.

On May 3, 2018, strikingly a date on which free speech is celebrated (World Press Freedom Day), Pedro Jaimes tweeted the flight path of the presidential plane on which Nicolás Maduro was headed for a ceremony in Aragua State, at the center of the country.

As underscored in the UN report, the tweeter obtained information in the public domain about the models of planes used by the Office of the President of Venezuela, data available on Wikipedia, and tracked the flight using the (equally open and public) FlightRadar24 app.

As of May 2018, there was no law or executive order in force classifying flight information as confidential.

A week after his tweets, Pedro Jaimes was arrested without any warrant by the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional, SEBIN). He was arriving at his home. At the time of his arrest, he was beaten, and so was his sister as she tried to step in. When his family showed up at the SEBIN headquarters in El Helicoide (a 1950s spiral-shaped building), Caracas, officials denied that Pedro was being held there.

Several days after his arrest, this time carrying a search warrant, the SEBIN took some communications and computer equipment from his home. He was charged with using such equipment to interfere with radio communications from planes and airports; he was also indicted of revealing state secrets on Twitter.

In the report, the UN experts indicate that they have reviewed the handbooks of the equipment seized from the tweeter and that, with those devices, it was not possible either to transmit radio signals or to interfere with communications.

Pedro Jaimes Criollo, who did nothing but write tweets based on public information, was subjected to interrogations in which he was beaten with sticks or wooden bats wrapped in plastic or cloth, which leaves no marks. A bag was placed over his head and insecticide was sprayed inside, suffocating him. He was also administered electroshocks.

He was kicked in the head while on the floor, causing him to partly lose his hearing. SEBIN officials threatened to rape him with a wooden stick they had at hand.

That same month of May 2018, Provisional Prosecutor Marlon Mora filed charges against Pedro Jaimes at the Third Miranda State Control Court ([Tercer Tribunal de Control del Estado Miranda] a trial-level category), with Judge Rumely Rojas Muro presiding. He was charged with interference in operational security, revealing state secrets, and digital espionage. Although he was arrested a week after his tweets about Maduro’s flight, the prosecution claimed that he had been apprehended in flagrante delicto.

After over a month, during which time the government did not reveal the holding place of the tweeter despite the fact that his family filed for injunctive relief on several occasions, Pedro was able to call his sister, on a telephone provided by a guard at El Helicoide, to tell her where he was being held.

During the court proceedings on his matter, he was not allowed to appoint his defense lawyers, was denied access to his own docket, and the basis of the indictment was the interviews with the very SEBIN agents who had detained and tortured him.

Long held in abject conditions, for some time, even without access to a bathroom to relief himself, Pedro Jaimes was released while standing trial in October 2019. His matter has since been deferred a dozen times.

“As of the time of writing, Mr. Jaimes continued to await trial, with precautionary measures including monthly presentation at court and a prohibition on leaving the country. He continued to suffer from psychological symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and physical trauma,” reads the UN report, released in mid-September.

His crime? Tweeting. His case, not being a unique or standalone story, epitomizes the lack of freedom and the repressive system that prevail today in Venezuela.

*Andrés Cañizález is a Venezuelan journalist and Ph.D. in Political Science Related Links

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