(New York) – Venezuela’s intelligence services should immediately release Gregory Hinds, 32, and Geraldine Chacón, 24, directors of the Venezuelan nongovernmental group Community Ambassadors, Human Rights Watch said today. The pair are being detained in defiance of a court order for their release. A review of judicial documents reveals no evidence implicating them in any crimes.
“Venezuela’s intelligence services are arbitrarily detaining Hinds and Chacón and should free them immediately,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Regional and European leaders should strongly press the Maduro government to allow independent figures, including Catholic Church representatives, to visit intelligence services detainees to verify their health and physical integrity.”
Hinds and Chacón have been locked up for more than three-and-half months. On May 16, 2018, detainees in Caracas’s Helicoide prison, administered by the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services (SEBIN), staged a peaceful protest. The detainees, who include many political prisoners, told relatives they were barricading themselves in a section of cellblocks and requesting mediation by independent figures, including the Catholic Church. Among other issues, the protesters said that the authorities should free detainees with judicial release orders, such as Hinds and Chacón.
After authorities quelled the protest, on May 18, 18 women, including Chacón, started a hunger strike. The women were thoroughly searched by SEBIN agents, who forced them to undress, a reliable source reported. Chacón is still said to be refusing food. Officials have issued no information on the status of the detainees since the protest.
SEBIN officers arrested Hinds at the offices of Community Ambassadors on January 31, saying they needed to interview him as part of a continuing investigation of the group. Community Ambassadors provides training for disadvantaged youth to participate in a United Nations moot court.
SEBIN agents did not present search or arrest warrants, Hinds’s lawyer said. They asked Hinds to drive to SEBIN headquarters for an interview, he later told a judge, and he obeyed. He never returned home.
At 1:30 a.m. on February 1, a group of SEBIN agents knocked on the door of Chacón’s home, and her mother let them in. The officers told Chacón they needed to interview her, she told the judge at her hearing, and they assured her she would be back within a couple of hours. She has been held ever since.
Lawyers for Hinds and Chacón have only been able to see them when they were brought before a court. Their initial hearing was delayed from February 2 to February 5. Their families have not been allowed to visit them.
SEBIN agents also went to the homes of other directors of Community Ambassadors, but did not find them at home. Six have since fled the country.
At Hinds and Chacón’s February 5 hearing, a prosecutor charged them with “conspiracy” and “public incitement” to commit crimes. The intelligence report that gave rise to the charges accused Community Ambassadors of “capturing young people to take advantage of their low-income situation” and “financing them with cash, food, shelter, clothes” from “NGOs, leaders of the political opposition, and private companies that oppose the government.” The aim, the intelligence report asserted, was “generating violence.” Chacón said SEBIN agents had asked her if she knew an opposition leader, María Corina Machado.
The intelligence report, which Human Rights Watch has seen, purports to be based on information provided by an unidentified informant. The report says that the informant accused Community Ambassadors of links to a member of Brave Heart, a nongovernmental group that provides services to disadvantaged young people. This member of Brave Heart had been detained days earlier, and had mentioned on his Facebook profile that he collaborated with Community Ambassadors.
The intelligence report calls Brave Heart “a terrorist organization” that aims to destabilize Venezuela with the support of the United States. Diosdado Cabello, a powerful pro-government politician, made similar claims on his TV show on January 24.
The only additional evidence that the prosecutor cited against Hinds and Chacón were SEBIN reports on their detentions and photographs of their cell phones, which were confiscated upon arrest. The judge ordered their detention during the initial investigation, until they presented documentation required for their release on bail. Days later, Hinds and Chacon presented that documentation, but were not released.
On April 2, a Venezuelan judge ordered SEBIN to release Hinds and Chacón, given that prosecutors had not presented formal charges within 45 days, as required by Venezuelan law for detained suspects. The judge ruled that Hinds and Chacón should appear in court every 15 days and not leave Venezuela. But intelligence officers have refused to free them. Hind’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the officers said first that the “system” was broken, and they could not “receive” the release orders. Later, they said did not have “orders from above” to process the detainees.