The Testimony of a Political Prisoner
Venezuela still has a long way to go concerning LGBT rights. For example, Venezuelan law does not recognize same sex marriages or partnerships. When Rosmit Mantilla, politician and LGBT activist, openly criticised the lack of progress regarding the issue of LGBT rights, he was imprisoned. For two and a half years he was both a witness to and a victim of torture. For PEN/Opp, the journalist Cristina Raffalli has compiled his story from this period.
Rosmit Mantilla was born in Caracas in 1982. In 2015, he was elected congressman of Venezuela’s National Assembly for the Andean state of Táchira; its configuration, two thirds being the opposing party, was voted by 14 million Venezuelans. His office began when he was still in jail. He was released due to health reasons thanks to the pressure of Amnesty International, the Vatican and his own party, Popular Will (Voluntad Popular).
By the end of 2017, Rosmit applied for political asylum before French authorities. When the time came, he was called for the mandatory interview. For two and a half hours, he explained his case and answered questions. He had decided to leave the story of the torture he had been subjected for the end. “I was told that there was no need for me to talk about that, that it was enough with what I had already told them and with the documents that I had submitted for my asylum request to be backed up. But I insisted. I wanted to talk on behalf of other prisoners who suffer torture in Venezuela today. From the day of the interview to the day I got an answer, only 13 days went by. A lot of friends here thought we should celebrate that they had granted me with asylum. I told them no, I told them I have nothing to celebrate. I have a lot to thank France for, indeed. But celebrating is different from thanking.”
Since his release from prison at the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (called Sebin in Spanish), this human rights activist, who started his social fight as a leader of the LGBT cause, has been spreading the information about political prisoners in Venezuela. In France, he has been welcomed by the president of the National Assembly, among others. Several institutions and the French State have opened their doors to him. A team of journalists at the BBC is currently working in the virtual reconstruction of the prison called El Helicoide.The “composite sketch” that Rosmit can provide after more than two years of living within its walls is part of what the BBC is using to make visible to the world what today is barely another ghost in a country where human suffering has destroyed all limits.
This is his story.
I am Rosmit Mantilla. I was elected congressman of Venezuela’s National Assembly by the Democratic Unity and the Popular Will parties. I served two and a half years in prison. I was incarcerated in 2014, just like my brother Leopoldo López, for telling Venezuela that hunger was coming, that scarcity was coming, that persecution was coming, that we would lose our brothers either in the graveyard or at the airport. That year, other young men who had nothing to do with the political parties also went to jail because they were in resistance at a campsite in Altamira.
I am going to tell you many things, but do not see them as Rosmit’s story, see them as the story of hundreds of young men who are imprisoned in Venezuela right now for political reasons.
On May 2nd, 2014, I was kidnapped from my home and thrown into a 5m by 3m cell along with 22 other people, a cell in which the lights were on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
When I became a prisoner, I realized this was not a communist government, but a criminal one. I realized this was not about the right and the left, but about hatred, resentment, evil.
I was in El Sebin for two and a half years. I can responsibly tell you that I was the only 2014 prisoner who was not physically tortured. But I was psychologically tortured. There was not a day in which I wasn’t psychologically mistreated. For instance, I spent days and months punished in the basements with no water, no light, no toilet and without taking a shower. I was under permanent verbal harassment, hearing “you will be here for 25 years” all the time. They would constantly come to me and say that they knew everything my family was doing.
I also went through the pain of watching one of my friends being battered several times. All, but me, were electrocuted. By then, I was the only prisoner at El Sebin who was part of a political party, that is, there was a great platform behind me keeping my profile high, in and out of Venezuela. Plus, because I was an LGBT advocate, Amnesty International took my case. I am the only one from 2014, apart from Leopoldo López and Daniel Ceballos, who has a resolution from the United Nations Committee against Torture and Arbitrary Detentions. Because of that, the cost for physically torturing me was too high for them.
One day while I was a prisoner, we learned there was a place called The Tomb. The Tomb was nothing more than the old vault of a bank and it is part of the El Sebin facilities in the Venezuela Plaza. Seven monochromatic cells, 30 meters’ underground. There, secluded, were Lorent Salegh, Gabriel Valle and Gerardo Carrero. They knew when it was dawn and when sunset arrived, because the subway ran above them, and they would hear the sound, and so they could guess what time the day began. Mrs. Katherine Harrington would stop by Lorent’s cell before dawn and tell him that, if he didn’t sign a document that said he was being paid by the opposition, he would rot in there. And my friend Lorent would tell her: “Well, I’ll rot in here, then.” Two years later, Lorent was moved to El Helicoide, were I was. But he was never the same. He had been buried for two and a half years without being dead.
My friend Gerardo Carrero, while imprisoned at El Helicoide, started a hunger strike and that strike caused him to be hung from the ceiling, like a fish, tied from the wrists in such a way that he had to stand on his toes and that his hands would detach if he put his heels on the ground. He spent 8 hours like that. They would put his friend Nixon Leal in front of him and spit in Nixon’s face so that Gerardo would lose it and his wrists detached. The result of his strike, after being hung, was taking him to The Tomb.
When I discovered The Tomb, I decided to start a hunger strike with my two of my partners. That strike didn’t last long. After 10 hours, I was taken into an empty room where I was kept for 8 hours, and then, at midnight, one of El Sebin’s high priests came in with a bible under his arm to read the Book of Revelations to me. And then, between one verse and other, he told me that I would never see my parents, that I would never see my lawyers, and that I would be taken to prison with common prisoners where I would certainly be killed. I said, ok, let’s wade into it, but I’m not letting the strike go. He left and came back within the hour, and when he came back, he had pictures of my family. He said to me: “Your sister is seven months pregnant. She goes to the doctor such and such day, and the doctor charges her such and such. You tell me what we are going to do.” And, of course, I had to let the strike go.
What is it that I want to tell you with all this? That we are not in the hands of the left or the right, but in the hands of criminals. All Venezuelans. All Venezuelans, inside and out of jail.
When the former president Pastrana came to Venezuela, I sent him a message in which I said, Mr. President, we are going through a deep humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Never had that term been used in Venezuela. The following day, president Pastrana read it at an event in the Altamira Suites hotel, and an hour later I was punished and remained like that for three weeks: punished for speaking, through president Pastrana’s voice, about a humanitarian crisis.
We were punished every week. They took our food away, they would turn off the lights, they cut off the water, we were locked away for days to see what we would do, and what we did was stay firm on our feet.
After two years in prison, my health finally gave in and I got gallbladder problems. It began to contaminate my pancreas and that meant a deathly risk. The pain was really strong, and I would faint inside my cell. I didn’t want to let a military doctor touch me, and I knew I had a right to a private physician. Finally, thanks to the pressure of Amnesty International, I got transferred to a clinic. There they ran some tests on me and found out that I had to have emergency surgery. When I was about to be taken into the OR, I was thrown out of there and pushed into a patrol car, and I was taken back to jail. When we arrived, I was barely conscious and had an IV hanging from my arm; I was locked in a punishment cell, with no water, no light, no air, nothing at all, and I lay there dying for 10 days. Whoever dared to give me food was punished, and their visits suspended. I was only allowed the food that El Sebin would give me, which was rice, almost always rotten. I had a gallbladder illness, so I couldn’t eat rice. But it was always rice: rotten, cold or old. I refused to eat.
They dragged me out of there on the tenth day and took me to the military hospital, because the people’s defender, Mr Tarek Saab, said that my disease was just me putting on a show. Then, my party arranged with him that I would be examined in the military hospital; if my disease was a lie, then everybody would calm down. So, under a lot of pressure from the Vatican and, once again, from Amnesty International, I was taken to the military hospital and I had all the tests. They realized I was indeed in very bad shape and I finally had surgery.
Once I had woken up from the anesthesia, I was convinced that I could not go back to jail, so I began to publicly pressure the Venezuelan government, the Venezuelan opposition and the people’s opinion. I was not, under any circumstance, going back to jail. I would start a hunger strike if they dared to imprison me again.
The pressure of Unity, the Vatican and Amnesty International grew and I was released the night of November 17th, 2016. A half-freedom, a freedom that entailed appearing at court every 15 days, and with the risk of being imprisoned again. I would go there every 15 days to listen to the judge and the District Attorney’s threats.
I want to emphasis again that this is the story of hundreds of lads who are imprisoned or on probation.
In prison, I met those who would become my best friends in life. And I lost one of them because he hung himself, not being able to bare the psychological torture. His name was Rodolfo González, they called him “the aviator”. He was an amazing man who was nearly 80 years old. Like me, he was constantly threatened with being taken to a common prison. Many times, he said to me: “Son, I’ll be leaving here before you.” What I never suspected was the way of leaving he meant. Ten minutes before hanging himself, Rodolfo came by my cell, gave me his blessing and said: “Son, I will do something for Venezuela.” And he also said: “If something happens to me, it’s D.A.’s Harrington fault.” He had told everyone he was going to do something for Venezuela, and he did; in the end his death stopped our transfer to the prisons where me and most of my friends would surely have been killed.
When they found out Rodolfo had killed himself, the boys in his row tried to help him because he was still alive. The officers came in and pushed the boys away, and they put a sheet over Rodolfo’s face. There was a chance that Rodolfo wouldn’t have died, and the police stopped him from being helped.
Minutes after taking Rodolfo’s body out of the cell where he had been, we were isolated into another room, they came into our cells and destroyed everything until the place looked like a war zone in order to intimidate us. Rodolfo’s best friend, Rony “Guerrilla”, was taken from his cell into where Rodolfo had killed himself 12 hours before as a way of psychological torture.
This is what happens in Venezuela. This is happening today. Rony’s story, Rodolfo’s and Rony’s is the story of many young men who are right now living what I lived.
There is nothing worse for a prisoner than being forgotten. When we found out that The Tomb existed, we started sending letters to different operators: to the writer Leonardo Padrón, to politicians, to congressmen, and little by little, uphill, we managed to close that place. We managed to do it while imprisoned. It is sad that so very few Venezuelans solidarised with this cause and other prisoners had to do it, being 20 minutes away from The Tomb.
“When I was in jail, I told the cruellest officer I met: “This will be over, and you know it.” And before being a congressman, I’d say to him: “This will be over, and I will be in the government, and when this is over, you will be a prisoner. But I will take care of your rights so that what is happening to me doesn’t happen to you.”
There was no reaction from his side. This was not a dialogue. I would simply repeat that, to him and to others, and I’d tell them that human rights crimes do not have a limit, and that penal responsibility is individual. Some of them would laugh, some would get nervous, others didn’t show reaction, but either way, I would remind them every day, without swearing, without violence, who I was, what I was going to do and how I was going to do it.
Why are they acting like that? What happened there? Why are they so hateful? The police is a victim of a profound social decay. By saying so, I am not condoning violence, but they are a byproduct of the society that the Chavez administration created. Many of those police officers are 20, 24 years old, they do not know democracy. They grew up in a repressive and violent society, and they are its product. The message to them must be very clear: those who committed crimes will be brought to justice. But we need to understand that we must walk together and build a Venezuela where our police officers are part of a healthy security system. In a system where a police officer feels defended, he will think it through before stealing, extorting or torturing. I would tell them many times that they should know they were not obligated to carry out orders which violated human rights. Few of them understood this, and some would tell me, “Rosmit, you need to understand that this is my family’s daily bread.’ I would say, “Yes, but remember, there’s an expiration date to this, because when this is over, your boss will leave on a plane and I will make sure you are judged, and your boss will not come down to your cell to bring you food.”
No. I Will not embrace those who tortured me and who are torturing my friends. But justice will come. And after justice, there will be time for embracement and forgiveness.
Cristina Rafalli is a Venezuelan journalist, graduated from the Andrés Bello Catholic University. She has a master’s in Hispanic and Latin American Studies by the Sorbonne Nouvelle University.