By Silvia Higuera and Katia Cardoza
Ana Julia Jatar shared a photo of her brother Braulio 82 days after he was first imprisoned in Venezuela. His face is gaunt, his once full head of silver hair is shaven and he wears a sad expression on his face.
December 3 marked three months since journalist and lawyer Braulio Jatar Alonso was arrested and locked in a Venezuelan prison. During this time, his family and lawyers have denounced not only irregularities in his detention process, but inhumane treatment in prison that has “seriously” affected the journalist’s health.
The latest news is that Jatar is suffering from a “presumptive basal cell carcinoma, cancer lesion (skin cancer) that without proper treatment can spread to other tissues and grow in muscles and bones,” according to Jatar’s defense, as published in newspaper El Universo.
There have been various complaints by family members about irregularities in Jatar’s judicial process since he was arrested on Sept. 3. For example, they said that the journalist disappeared for 12 hours after being detained, that a search of his house without a judicial order was carried out during those 12 hours and that officials allegedly “planted” money in the journalist’s vehicle to charge him with the crime of money laundering.
For his family, as for other human rights organizations, everything that has happened since Sept. 3 occurred in retaliation for a video Jatar published in the media outlet he directs, Reporte Confidencial. The video shows a citizen protest against President Nicolás Maduro from Sept. 2.
“Actually, my brother’s detention does not begin until 72 hours later when he is first presented to a court, and finally he understands what the prosecution’s accusation is, money laundering,” Ana Julia Jatar, sister of Braulio, told the Knight Center on Nov. 30. “It is worth clarifying that in the 45 days [they were given], after they investigated all the bank accounts of my brother, they did not find any evidence that my brother could have 25,000 dollars in cash.”
Ana Jatar explained that her brother has remained in prison despite the fact that they did not find “reliable” evidence of the things for which Jatar was accused. According to Ana, the only thing that “ties” her brother with the case are two testimonies that she questions. She described one witness as a homeless person with psychiatric problems and said the other witness also has psychiatric problems and “was not even in the place where everything happened on Margarita Island at the time when my brother was kidnapped by the state security forces and the political police.”
The defense requested house arrest for Jatar due to the fact that he suffers from hypertension. It was accepted by the prosecution, but the judge on the case rejected it.
In these three months, Jatar has been transferred between prisons at least three times. The first time he was taken at dawn from Margarita Island to a prison in the state of Guárico. According to Ana Jatar, his hair was shaved, he had to wear the blood-stained uniform of another prisoner, had no access to drinking water and was in solitary confinement “accompanied by rats and cockroaches.”
"That's why I say and repeat that Venezuelan prisons are not prisons but centers of torture," Ana Jatar said.
Ana Jatar said that her brother’s health has deteriorated. His problem with hypertension has become more acute, but new problems have arisen due to the conditions in which he is detained. She said that according to information passed along by Braulio’s wife and daughter, the journalist is subjected to “harassment” and “humiliation,” is still in solitary confinement, does not have the right to sunlight, isn’t allowed to read or right, cannot be visited by any men, and has a shaved head. In the prison where he is being held, he must withstand temperatures above 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
The lack of sunlight has affected his skin and vision. “They did not allow Vitamin D pills that the family and I personally tried to get to him to pass to his wife because those Vitamin D pills supposedly were not part of a medical [prescription], although his lack of Vitamin D is obvious,” the sister said.
On the day of the first conversation with the Knight Center, Ana Jatar said that her brother was having a biopsy for a melanoma that appeared on his shoulder “that could be a very aggressive skin cancer,” she said through tears. Days later, in another conversation, she told the Knight Center that the doctor said it was skin cancer, but they are waiting for test results to determine what type of cancer it is.
“This is very serious. This is not longer a political issue, it is a humanitarian issue,” Ana Jatar said.
Despite these three months in jail, his case has not advanced. He still has not had a preliminary hearing in which the charges against him will be officially presented, and during which his defense hopes he can leave prison due to the lack of evidence against him. The second attempt to conduct this hearing was canceled at the request of the defense due to the state of Braulio’s health.
In an interview with the newspaper El Nacional, Braulio’s wife, Silvia Martínez, said that the judge on the case had until Nov. 29 to make a decision about the state of her husband’s health and Martínez’s petition that he receive specialized care. “My husband’s health is a time bomb in the hands of the government,” Martínez said to the media outlet.
For Ana Jatar, it is clear that her brother’s case is a political one and that he will remain in prison “independent of the judicial process until it is more costly for the government of Nicolás Maduro to keep him there than to release him.”
For this reason, his family knows that the only way to achieve his release is through international pressure. They have tried with different methods, the first from the Chilean government, the country where Braulio Jatar was born and therefore has a second citizenship.
An action that has worked with other prisoners who have been released thanks to international pressure due to the fact that they had other nationalities were the cases of Gabriel San Miguel and Francisco Márquez.
This has also been understood by organizations like Human Rights Watch (HRW). In a recent opinion column, José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of HRW, said that both Chile and the Vatican must join to put pressure on Venezuela that would allow, among others, the release of Jatar.”
“The approach proposed by the Chilean Senate may well be the best formula to free Venezuela’s political prisoners and restore the rule of law,” Vivanco wrote. “The Bachelet administration should keep up the international pressure together with other leaders, but it should also specifically address the Jatar case—including by asking the Vatican to mediate with the Venezuelan government to immediately release him and drop the charges against him.”
In fact, HRW recently launched a campaign to achieve the release of several people, including Braulio Jatar. Using the label #Freethem on social networks, the organization invited all people to join the campaign.
“Braulio Jatar is Maduro’s hostage, who is imprisoned exclusively for highlighting the widespread discontent of the Venezuelan people with his government. In a country where the concentration of power is such that there is not a single institution on the ground is willing to curb abuses of the executive, a case like this will only be resolved if there is strong international pressure,” Vivanco told the Knight Center.
“It is essential that the region’s democratic leaders and the Vatican double their pressure on the Venezuelan government to immediately and unconditionally release Jatar. He is not a political prisoner any more; to ask for his release is to defend freedom of expression and of the press, two fundamental values in a democratic society.”
It should be recalled that the crimes for which Braulio Jatar is accused could lead to up to 15 years in prison, according to HRW.
Jatar “is not a communicator”: Venezuelan state
During the hearing “Situation of the right to freedom of expression and of information in Venezuela” before the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) during the 159th sessions on Dec. 2, the Venezuelan state rejected the case of Jatar as being related to freedom of expression.
According to William Castillo, Venezuelan deputy minister for international communication, Jatar is not a communicator but “a politician of old accused of crimes of corruption for many years. Ah, is that people who are accused of other crimes like money laundering for having a radio, or having a blog or an internet site and say things, then they are communicators. The man is being investigated for other crimes that are not crimes of opinion. There are not prisoners of thought in Venezuela.”
Larry Devoe, executive secretary of the National Human Rights Council of Venezuela, said that Jatar’s case “is a matter that is under discussion within our courts with all guarantees of due process.”
However, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR, Edison Lanza, reminded the Venezuelan State that the condition of a communicator cannot be determined by whether or not he is a professional, and invited the State to adhere to the international standards in terms of freedom of expression since Jatar’s detention occurred after “publishing a video with information of high public interest.”
For their part, the petitioners at the hearing expressed concern about Jatar’s condition in prison. “The man has been subjected to cruel treatment. His right to health and nutrition is being violated,” said Ligia Bolívar, director of the Center for Human Rights of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, who added that Jatar has lost about 33 pounds during his detention.
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.