Venezuela election 2018: Riot erupts at political prison as detainees call for help and freedom

Footage emerges of detained US missionary Joshua Holt pleading to the American people

Chloe Farand
Thursday 17 May 2018 09:28
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Venezuela prison riot: Utah Mormon missionary says he has spent two years behind bars and appeals for help

A riot has erupted at a crowded detention centre in Venezuela's capital Caracas, days before a controversial presidential election which is being seen as a test for the country's socialist revolution.

Videos from the prison, where many opponents of President Nicolas Maduro are held, showed groups of men identifying themselves as prisoners saying they had taken over.

Authorities in Venezuela have released no official information about the incident at the El Helicoide facility, located at the headquarters of the intelligence agency Sebin. But in a video which emerged from the prison, one man said: "This has been taken over peacefully by all the political prisoners and all the prisoners who are abducted here, who are tortured daily."

He added that tear gas and weapons had been fired at detainees but that prisoners were holding out and demanded freedom.

In another video posted on social media, US missionary Joshua Holt, from Utah, who is also being detained at the El Helicoide prison, pleaded for help.

"They have taken the entire prison where I am at. They are outside, they're trying to break in. They're saying that they want to kill me and that they want me as their guarantee," he said.

"I'm calling on the people of America, I need your help to get me out of this place. I have been begging my government for two years... and now my life is threatened. How long do I have to suffer here."

Mr Holt's family said the missionary was framed on weapons charges while in Venezuela for his wedding.

In another video posted on Twitter, Mr Holt appears with three other men believed to be other detainees. "I am here to show you that I am not being kidnapped. The only people who are kidnapping me is the government of Venezuela. We need the people to help us," he said.

Mr Holt said the men had been detained in the prison for four years without trial and that some of the prisoners were being denied medical attention. "They won't take us to the hospital, they won't help us," he said.

His mother Laurie Holt told Reuters that she did not know the sequence of the videos and was unable to confirm Mr Holt's current situation.

The riot was reportedly precipitated when political prisoner Gregory Sanabria was beaten as he tried to calm the situation inside the prison.

Chief prosecutor in Venezuela Tarek Saab said: "In the face of the events that happened today in the Sebin headquarters at the Helicoide, we sent a commission of the prosecutor's office to the facility. That delegation spoke to a representative of the prisoners to respond to their requests."

In a tweet, the US embassy said it was "very concerned" about the riot at the El Helicoide prison.

"Joshua Holt and other US citizens are in danger," it said. "The Venezuelan government is directly responsible for their safety, and we will hold you accountable if something happens to them," it added.

The Venezuelan government has refused to comment on the situation.

Human rights groups and critics of President Maduro said several hundred political prisoners have been unfairly jailed. Mr Maduro previously said all jailed activists were being held on legitimate charges of violence and subversion.

The incident comes not long before Sunday's presidential election. The US, the EU, the UN Human Rights Council and neighbouring Latin American countries have expressed concerns about the upcoming poll and its vulnerability to manipulation.

Commentators say the election is the biggest test to the country's socialist revolution in nearly two decades amid a crisis-stricken economy. Mismanagement has been blamed for the erosion of the country's once-robust oil industry leaving widespread shortages of food and medicines.

President Maduro, 55, the successor to Hugo Chavez, is seeking re-election for a second term on behalf of PSUV (the United Socialist Party of Venezuela) after assuming office in 2013.

Outsiders have little doubt that Mr Maduro will win and he himself remains confident. "The revolution is going to record the biggest victory in its entire electoral history", Mr Maduro said in early May.

But opposition supporters say President Maduro cannot win the election without resorting to buying votes and coercion.

The main opposition, the Democratic Unity coalition, is boycotting the vote and has refused to enter any candidates.

Additional reporting by agencies.

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