By Yaridbel Licón and Victor Molina, Amnesty International Venezuela
“I often woke up believing my strength was running out, believing I couldn’t keep going, and then I received photographs of Amnesty International human rights activists from all over the world requesting my freedom, respect for justice and for life. Infinite thanks, friends, without you I wouldn’t be here!” – Rosmit Mantilla, ex prisoner of conscience, unjustly detained in May 2014 and released in November 2016.
On May 2, 2014, a delegation of more than 20 members of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) burst into his apartment in Caricuao, a modest neighbourhood in west Caracas, where Rosmit Mantilla lived with his grandparents. A student, member of the opposition Party “Voluntad Popular” and a human rights activist, he never thought he would spend two and a half years of his life behind bars awaiting a trial against him that would never happen.
An anonymous informant, commonly known as “patriotas cooperantes” (“cooperating patriots” in English), accused him of having received money to fund the anti-government protests that took place that year. This anonymous accusation was enough to keep him imprisoned in the SEBIN cells for almost 1,000 days.
Torture with electricity and excrement
Rosmit, who is still deeply affected by the experience he has survived, comments that he suffered from extreme, constant psychological torture. “Every day I was awakened by the shocking noise of the padlocks and insults being shouted.”
“There was a moment in which I decided to go on a hunger strike, which led to the guards sitting by my side every day to read me the Bible and to talk to me specifically about the Apocalypse, mentioning between each verse that I would never see my family again, that I would never leave and that I could die: all this to force me to stop the strike.”
From many places in Caracas you can see the dome of the “Helicoid”, a building that was supposed to be a shopping centre but was later adapted to house different Venezuelan security forces. Rosmit spent his time imprisoned there, an important part of his youth, and was only transferred out of the SEBIN cells to appear in court for the preliminary hearings that were repeatedly suspended.
In a cell measuring two by two metres, deprived of sunlight, Rosmit developed skin diseases and severe depression which led to him losing over 60 pounds, to the point that many of his friends could not recognize him. He was only allowed to receive visits from his relatives – who had to take him all his food, medicines, basic toiletries and even drinking water – and his lawyers. When he needed medical attention, he had to make the guards believe that the doctor visiting him was a relative.
His family went through very hard times. In a country plagued by inflation and shortages, they had to “make magic happen” to get everything Rosmit needed and make an extra effort to provide other things that Rosmit asked them for, to help other detainees who did not have relatives in the capital. Whether he was allowed to receive visitors or not depended either on the mood of the officials on duty or on the mood of the director of the centre, according to what they were told at the gates of the compound.
Mantilla says that he was not physically tortured, but he did witness the torture of other detainees, and heard their screams. He also reports that he saw detainees covered in blood and tied up by their wrists hanging “like fish”, standing on their tiptoes for entire nights, they were given electric shocks and tied up by their ankles and wrists to hold them in the foetal position for hours, and bags with excrement were held in their faces.
Rosmit describes how the last two months of his detention were the toughest of all the time he spent there. His doctor diagnosed him with multiple vesicular microlithiasis, recurrent biliary colic and thickening of the gastric wall; however, he was denied the immediate intervention that his case called for. “They punished me for demanding my right to health: they put me in an isolated punishment cell for 10 days, which had no water, no light, no bathroom; I had to use bags to go to the bathroom and wash with the water provided by my cellmates” he said. “24 hours after the first night of punishment, they let me go to a bathroom which was totally dirty and unhygienic, and yet I was always accompanied, even while I slept, as the whole time I had a guard sitting in front of my cell staring at me.”
Finally, Rosmit was transferred to the Military Hospital where a doctor determined, after carrying out a scan of his abdomen, that, contrary to the reports of the SEBIN doctors that said “healthy adult” – in order to record his “physical integrity” they forced him to undress and photographed him – his situation was even more delicate than his independent doctor had thought, so he had to undergo urgent surgery.
“I am more committed than ever”
“As a human being I allowed myself to cry and express all the panic I felt, because I simply didn’t know what they were going to do to me; unfortunately I could not control time, but I was able to protect my own safety. However, the pressure of confinement damaged my mental well-being and made me enter a kind of state of panic, which I was able to control by focusing on the fact that I am a human rights activist and that I had a great responsibility, so I started to secretly document all the instances of torture, injustice, evil and hate going on around me.”
For this, he used a notebook in which he pretended to draw pictures whenever the guards passed. Mantilla says that when you are in prison and see torture up close as he had seen it, you understand that you have a purpose in life, because witnessing injustices first hand converts turns you into a spokesperson, requesting and demanding absolute fulfilment of human rights. His cellmates remain in the Helicoid prison.
“When I was granted my release, I remembered what I always thought I would do when this day arrived: commitment. Very few people nowadays realise what a prisoner of conscience goes through, not only are you separated from your family, but you are robbed of your time and health.”
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Director for the Americas, said that this long-awaited release was very good news for human rights in Venezuela. “Rosmit should not have spent even a second behind bars. The Venezuelan authorities must now build on this positive step and free all social activists and political leaders whose only crime was to disagree with the government.”
Mantilla points out that Amnesty International’s support has been fundamental.
“They showed me that human rights should not only be a speech or slogan, because it is about the heart, flesh and bone. They supported me all this time, I never felt alone, every campaign and activity that was carried out gave me strength in a place where there is no joy.”
“Along with Amnesty International, I commit myself to demonstrate that reporting and activism is very important for the defence of human rights. I want to extend an invitation to all people to join this movement that showed me that solidarity knows no borders. When I was in prison two of my nephews were born. Now I realise that not only do I have two new members in my family, but that there are more than 7 million members who are part of my life and my freedom today.”