Tamara Suju, Venezuelan lawyer and human rights activist, addresses the 7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Good morning. I’ve been asked to talk about my experience and what I’ve done so that I would end up in the Czech Republic, which is far away but is close to the human rights values of those countries that defend human rights. I think that you should know that Venezuela’s known as an oil country, a country that is rich, that could be a real world power. But today it is a poor country, where people are finding it very hard to get medicine or food. Where 25,000 Venezuelans died because of the criminal underworld. One Venezuelan dies every two hours due to violence in my country. We can also add that there are problems with public services, with basic services like light, water, sanitation. We had what was called the revolution of the 21st century , which is what Chavez dubbed his political project. But it polarised the population and it incited hatred against dissidents of his policies and they managed to divide the country into two parts. I am sure that today, 15 years on, we are now aware of how anti-democratic the government has been that Venezuelans are starting to join and to clamour for our rights.
Venezuela is hijacking its people and denying them of their rights and is also taking away their values from them. For ten years I’ve worked in organisations and we traveled throughout the country denouncing persecution against political prisoners and we carried out fora on human rights and we encouraged young people and civil society to fight for their human rights. This, despite the fact that for these past 10 years, because of the reports that we gave of torture and repression, we have been threatened. But our intention has always been to denounce what has been going on in Venezuela despite the repression and the threats. In the context of everything that has happened, everything that took place last year in terms of violence, my organisation and the organisation I am international director of, defended 70% of more than 4,000 people who were arrested in 6 months. That’s almost 1,900 people who are being tried. And we have 98 political prisoners, the leader Poda Lopez and the youngest person to be elected in the country Ceballos, young students, lawyers, businessmen and social leaders.
I’d like you to imagine what we feel and what we felt last year. Over a six month period, people came to our office with their children, with their brothers who had been beaten, tortured and ill-treated and abused. 200 lawyers in the country had to deal with 3,000 complaints of ill-treatment and many cases of torture carried out by the state security forces. We would come to the office early, but when we got there there was already a long line. Young people, with their children, to show us how they had been tortured, asking us for advice on what they could do. And speaking of torture, I’m including electricity applied to the body, people being beaten. We had the case of a young girl who was raped and a woman who was stripped and electricity was put on her body all over her body in front of her own child. And a woman whose scalp was peeled. We have a woman who was beaten with sticks, a woman who was forced to kneel for hours with her hands tied behind her, and they stepped on her feet endlessly.
So I can tell you that in May we all sat down in our office in Caracas and we felt disgust for what we were seeing and hearing. We couldn’t even imagine what kind of person would do this to children, to young people. We had children who are 13, 14 years old who were tortured. They were put in tanks and they were beaten. They were children. We spent hours in the courts defending the young people who had been detained.  In one single hearing we had 130 young people and we knew that they had been held incommunicado for 24 hours, but we knew what was happening to them. We realised immediately and we had ten minutes to hear about what they were being accused of and there were 130 people we had to defend. We said were you beaten, are you going to make a statement? That was all we were allowed to say. And in the midst of all this during these six months of horror, we were constantly on television. We were constantly being accused on television and we had no time to defend ourselves. And over these past 10 years, my face, just as that of many of other people, has been set up, put on television and shown to people and we are despised, we are made fun of. And this is unending. So there is great incitement to hate just as in the case of international organisations and NGOs that defend human rights.
In May the Minister of Justice accused me of trying to destabilize the country because the government set up a situation where they set up a system where there are two possible outcomes: you’re being accused of murder or you’re being accused of another crime. There are two files. So we had defenders of human rights in one of the files, lawyers. Half of the opposition went into that file and the Minister accused me especially, and I had to make a statement for four hours and they informed me that I was going to be accused and indicted. And then I decided to follow the path that all human rights defenders must follow when they want to remain useful and defend their cause. (Just one more minute please.)I asked for political asylum in the Czewch Republic and they gave it to me in May. (I just have one more minute because I’d like to talk about the Tumba.)
This year we found out in Venezuela that the government has a prison called the Tumba, the Tomb. And I’d like you to imagine that it is freezing cold, between 0 and 6 degrees Celsius, twenty feet below the ground. There is white light 24 hours a day. Everything is white; the walls are painted white, the cells, the table, the floor, everything. It’s 2 by 3 metres wide. These are the only colours in the Tumba prison. People don’t have a notion of the time. There are no clocks. Time passes and the prisoners don’t know if it’s day or night. They haven’t seen the light of the sun for more than six months. They haven’t breathed any fresh air and this is what’s happening to the dissident movement in Venezuela. There are two young people there. They have been engaging in a hunger strike for 18 days and they are clamouring for a change. They are clamouring to be brought to another place, away from that terrible place, and that they close the Tumba. Now there are other places like this.
We know, we’ve learned that there are terrible places; that this prison is a form of torture in itself. And Antonio Ledezma, the Mayor of Caracas, was attacked by a group and he was given a warning when we went to see him. I would also like to announce that at this time, Mr. Lopez and Ceballos have been locked up in a high-security cell, a punishment cell without any natural ventilation, without any sun, and they are being punished for no reason. I’d like to entreat you to say to the human rights organisation that Venezuela should be called upon to follow the conventions of human rights that they have signed and to cease their repression and to free political prisoners and to close prisons like the Tomb which should be denounced internationally. It’s a shame that such a place exists 20 metres below ground where they’re locking up the Venezuelan dissidents.
7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, February 23, 2015