(Nick Wighman) ORIGINALLY designed as an underground subway station, Venezuela’s most notorious and feared prison is essentially a cement box that sits five storeys beneath the headquarters of the country’s intelligence agency in Caracas.
Known as the Tomb, or La Tumba, the secretive prison is filled with political protesters who are completely starved of daylight, face torturous conditions and are denied basic human rights.
Friends and family of those who have been thrown into the Tomb say the prisoners — mostly made up of peaceful protesters — are being left there to die.
There are no windows to the outside world and the complete lack of ventilation means the air is stale with a lingering stench, while the below-freezing temperatures in the subterranean cells can become unbearably cold. With no toilet facilities in their cell, prisoners are often denied the chance to go to the bathroom.
Those under lockdown in the Tomb are under constant surveillance with microphones, cameras and two-way mirrors monitoring everything going on.
The scant reports emanating from the prison reveal that those incarcerated in the Tomb frequently suffer from cases of extreme illness, with symptoms including vomiting, diarrhoea and hallucinations. But little is being done to alleviate their suffering, and activists in the country who draw attention to the plight of political detainees risk suffering a similar fate.
The harrowing conditions of the Tomb represent the alarming increase of human rights abuses which are systematically carried out by a government that is desperate to maintain control.
As the country teeters on the brink of financial chaos, the government is becoming increasingly anxious of political opposition, and their response has been heavy handed.
President Nicolas Maduro’s growing crackdown on political dissidents has become so brutal that his country has developed a reputation among international human rights groups for the arbitrary detainment and torture of its citizens.
Yamile, the mother of 26-year-old prisoner Lorent Saleh, visits her son in the Tomb whenever she can.
“I’m scared of what might happen to Lorent. And I really don’t wish this on anyone,” she told Fusion. “He’s buried alive, practically waiting to die.”
Lorent Saleh is an activist who was a leader in student protests against Maduro’s government in 2014. The government has labelled him a terrorist and he has been accused of speaking at a neo-Nazi event in Bogota, Colombia — accusations that Saleh denies.
However when Colombian authorities handed him over to the Venezuelan Intelligence Service in September 2014, he was charged with conspiracy to rebellion and has since been placed in the underground jail.
His treatment in the Tomb has been so damaging that the young activist reportedly tried to hang himself earlier this year.
“They are damaging him psychologically,” his mother said. “How are you supposed to fix that?”
She also told Fusion that she lives in constant fear of the unabating surveillance she endures as a result of her son’s incarceration.
Sadly, Lorent Saleh’s experience is not unique.
Gerardo Carrero, also 26, was arrested for taking part in a protest which involved camping outside the United Nations building in the capital to protest and demand the release of political prisoners.
He was taken to the Tomb where he spent six months in the dank and dingy cells. During his time in the jail, Mr Carrero said he suffered serious incidents of torture at the hands of guards.
According to reports from his wife, his skin was pale, his eyebrows were yellow and he had black spots all over his body from not being able to see the sun.
His treatment became so bad he embarked on an 18-day hunger strike until a visit by the Ombudsman precipitated his transfer to a different prison.
In January, prior to his release from the Tomb, his sister filed a complaint of torture. “I do not understand how the authorities allowed my brother to be in such a terrible and inhumane place,” she wrote.
The deterioration of Venezuela’s economic situation has been the catalyst for the iron-fisted approach against dissidents.
The domestic situation has become so dire in the country that earlier in the year, theThe Daily Beast asked the question: “Is Venezuela on the Verge of Collapse?”
Forbes, however, were less generous in their outlook with their January headline, “The Impending Collapse of Venezuela”.
As the country struggles to provide basic goods and services for its people, human rights groups have condemned the direction the government is headed. US Senate testimony given earlier in the year by Santiago A. Canton, executive director of the RFK Partners for Human Rights, heavily criticised the Maduro government’s treatment of Venezuelan citizens.
The testimony highlighted the horrendous conditions of the Tomb and raised concerns over the treatment of political prisoners.
There is an absolute “disregard for the respect of basic human rights that has become the state-sanctioned rule in Venezuela,” he said.
He also testified that more than 70 people have been arbitrarily detained or arrested in Venezuela over the last year alone — a practice which the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said was “exacerbating the tensions in the country.”
The 2013 elections that brought Maduro to power as the successor to Hugo Chavez were mired by allegations of fraud and ushered in a tumultuous political environment in the country.
Anti-government protesters became a common sight on the streets of Venezuela and resulted in the deaths of at least 43 protesters in 2014.
Peaceful demonstrations are routinely met with violent resistance from the Venezuelan police and military, the latter of which he been granted explicit power to use lethal force to control peaceful demonstrations. On January 27 this year, the Minister of Defense authorised the use of “potentially lethal force, be it with a firearm or with another potentially lethal weapon … to avoid public disorder, to support the legitimate authority, and to immediately reject aggression using any necessary means.”
But for those protesters who managed to escape the fatal force of the government on the streets, the prospect of detentions is barely more desirable.