World

Venezuelan prison labeled 'The Tomb' keeps opponents quiet five floors below

Franz von Bergen

 (Franz von Bergen)

On September 8 it’s going to be a year since Lorent Saleh and Gabriel Valles, two college students from northern Venezuela, were dragged to the infamous Caracas jail nicknamed ‘La Tumba’ (The Tomb) to await trial.

They were detained during a protest in Valencia, the state capital of Carabobo, and accused of charges that can be translated as “upsetting the public order, creating uncertainty and spreading false information.”

“La Tumba” is located five levels below ground, under the National Bolivarian Service of Intelligence (SEBIN) headquarters, and inmates are often kept isolated in an area with no direct sunlight. The place is lit with white lights the 24 hours and the temperature is kept at 60 F.

The only way to know night has come is by the eerie quiet that fills the space when the subways stop running at 11 p.m.

Currently “The Tomb” is inhabited by just three individuals – Saleh, Valles and Johnny Bolívar, a 38-year-old man charged with murdering a woman during a 2014 protest.

Saleh and Valles – along with Gerardo Carrero, another student that has since been transferred to a different prison – were kept in isolation for the first six month of their imprisonment. Now they are each in one of the four cells of “The Tomb,” which also has a common living area with a TV set and a few exercise machines. However, they still have cameras on them 24/7.

“Right now the conditions are better,” Yamile Saleh, Lorent's mother, told Fox News Latino. “Gabriel and Lorent can speak to each other in a common area and they receive sunlight three days a week,” said the woman, who lives two hours away by bus.

The men’s situation improved in March, after the three inmates went on a hunger strike for more than three weeks. Venezuelan ombudsman Tarek William Saab managed to get Carrero transferred to a different prison, but the other two were kept there.

Saleh and Valles’ cases were handled by prosecutor Katherine Harrington, one of the seven Venezuelan senior officials sanctioned by the U.S. in March for human rights violations. She now serves as deputy minister of the Interior.

The two students were linked to terrorist activities by the state-controlled media, which broadcast a video that showed them allegedly speaking about placing bombs in Táchira, west of Venezuela.

They were portrayed as neo Nazi activists with ties to former president of Colombia Álvaro Uribe.

“They weren’t even in charge of any of those things. [Prosecutor] Harington just wanted to create a show to incriminate opposition leaders like Antonio Ledezma, María Corina Machado and Leopoldo López,” said lawyer Joel García, who represents both Saleh and Valles.

He told Fox News Latino the case continues to stall, their court hearings having been postponed 11 times so far.

“Right now we are in the second stage of the investigation. In a court hearing the judge should decide if he accepts the proof presented by the plaintiffs. If he does, we will advance to the trial,” he said.

“But we are stalled in this stage because the judge, Miguel Graterol, is waiting order from higher instances before doing anything, even though he is supposed to be unbiased.”

Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.

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