At least eight people have been jailed in Venezuela in the last 11 months for tweeting messages that the government of Nicolas Maduro found “offensive” or considered a threat for the country’s political instability.
The opposition calls it a modern-age witch hunt.
The charges range from conspiracy and instigating hatred to espionage and “causing anxiety” – all of them qualify for probation, defense lawyers say, but somehow their cases have stalled and five of the eight detainees are still behind bars.
Lessi Marcano (48), Ginette Hernández (23), Leonel Sánchez (47), Víctor Ugas (26), and Inés González (31) are locked up in El Helicoide, a Caracas prison guarded by intelligence personnel of the SEBIN (Bolivarian Service of National Intelligence).
The prosecutor appointed to most of these cases is Katherine Haringhton, one of the seven Venezuelan government senior officials sanctioned by the U.S. in March for human rights violations. She has since been promoted to Interior vice minister by president Maduro.
Lessi Marcano, a clairvoyant and architect jailed since January, managed the Twitter account @Hiipolita, which posted premonitions that the government found suspicious. Like when he tweeted to his 93,000+ followers that the National Assembly would soon be “in mourning” and a few days later Chavista congressman Robert Serra was murdered under murky circumstances.
SEBIN officers raided Marcano’s home and arrested him and his niece Ginette Hernández for helping him handle the account.
Marcano’s lawyer, José Gregorio Baptista, said the government is using all sort of tactics to keep postponing his release.
“On January 29th, Marcano pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. Under Venezuela’s law, any conviction of less than 5 years for a crime that is not a violent felony is commuted to community service and a fine,” he explained to Fox News Latino.
“[They say] he hasn’t been released because the inmates need to take a psychological test before coming out. He took it in March, but they haven’t sent the results to the courtroom yet,” he added.
Baptista said that Marcano is allowed to see daylight only once a week and his family’s visits are restricted.
In Leonel Sanchez’s case (@Anonymouswar), he is in prison since August for allegedly hacking the Twitter accounts of senior government officials and writing “offensive tweets.” His former lawyer José Vicente Haro told Fox News Latino that Sanchez is still jailed because his trial was unnecessarily relocated to a different state, where the appointed judge was removed soon after the court was handed his case and has not yet been replaced.
Diosdado Cabello, Speaker of the National Assembly and Chavismo's number two, announced Sanchez’s arrest on his weekly TV program.
“After August 2014, the political confrontation that was taking place on the streets moved to the social networks, where people expressed their feelings against the government,” Haro said. “To prevent this, they are making selective arrests – [they want] to generate a deterrent effect,” he added.
Haro said that one of the other detainees, Víctor Ugas (whose account @VictorUgas apparently has been overtaken by somebody else), was set free on paper three weeks ago but remains behind bars because his release ballot hasn’t been issued.
Ugas was arrested in October 2014 for posting photographs of Congressman Serra’s corpse at the morgue.
Inés González’s arrest was also related to the late Serra, whom she labeled “a criminal” on her Twitter account @inesitalaterrible. At her trial she pleaded guilty of “insulting a public official” and apologized to Serra’s family – but still was sentenced to three years without probation.
Meanwhile, those who have been released, María Contreras (55), Daniely Benítez (33) and Abraham Muñoz (18) walk the streets but continue to face restrictions.
Contreras, for instance, was released after six months in jail, but has to check in with the court every 15 days, do community service and is not allowed to use any social network, her lawyer Oswaldo Cali told FNL.
Her crime? The self-proclaimed psychic had a Twitter account (@marletmaga) where she posted her “visions” — and got arrested after predicting Diosdado Cabello’s death.
Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.