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U.S. Marine vet arrested in Venezuela stages protest over dire prison conditions

Prison security tower. (MaxPixel/Released)

Matthew Heath, the former Marine captured in Venezuela in September 2020 and held on terrorism charges, refused this week to attend his trial in protest of his prison conditions.

Heath was scheduled to have a hearing to continue his case on Tuesday, but refused to attend, putting a wrench in efforts by the government to prosecute him. With limited access to lawyers and family, he has been held in near isolation and this week used what little leverage he has to try to force the hand of Venezuela’s government.

“Matthew protesting in this way tells us that he is desperate and concerned for his own well-being,” said Trudy Rutherford, Heath’s aunt. “The judge approved Matthew’s appeal to move to a safer prison two weeks ago and it has not happened. This says something about their respect for the rule of law as well as human rights.”

An adviser to Heath’s family added, “This is the only way that he can make his concerns known, by refusing to come to court.”

The order at issue came down late last month for Heath, who on July 8 turned 40 in jail, directing that he be transferred to the La Planta prison in Caracas, the nation’s capital. That facility had previously been shut down but was reopened recently to hold non-Venezuelan prisoners.

The prison near the El Paraiso neighborhood is a minimum security installation that allows the inmates to have more interaction with friends, family and other inmates.

“It is a prison where he would have access to fresh air, to sunlight. He would have access to a yard. So he would have the right to get sunlight,” said Tamara Suju, a lawyer and human rights activist who forms part of Heath’s defense team. “All of this is very different from where he has been held, which is a third-level basement of a building turned into a maximum security prison.”

Since his capture last Sept. 10, Heath has been held at the notorious DGCIM Boleita headquarters, run by the regime’s feared military intelligence unit. His legal team said he is being held in a tiny cell that measures just 6.5 feet by 6.5 feet and he’s locked behind heavy security doors.

There are just a few prisoners held at the DGCIM.

The Tennessee native hopes to be better treated in the new prison, which is run by guards of the Interior and Justice Ministry instead of DGCIM guards, who are part of the military intelligence apparatus. In the new prison he might have the opportunity to interact with other foreign-born prisoners, potentially other Americans.

The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald reported last month that Heath’s family feels he was either kidnapped or became a victim of an extortion scheme from March 2020 to just before his arrest by someone in Colombia, where he’d been briefly detained for having ammunition on him but no gun.

Heath’s arrest came four months after a botched coup in May 2020 launched from Colombia and led in part by a Florida company called Silvercorp USA, a coup that later was believed quashed with the help of infiltrators. It resulted in the death of six Venezuelan would-be liberators and the arrest of two former Green Berets, now sentenced to 20 years in prison in Venezuela.

In court testimony earlier this year, Heath and his lawyer Guillermo Heredia told of torture after his capture at a checkpoint in the lawless border area between Colombia and Venezuela called La Guajira. The legal team and his family claim he was subjected to electric shocks, was beaten and had a plastic bag over his head to make him think he’d be suffocated. A complaint alleging this was also filed with the United Nations.

Venezuela depicted the American’s arrest as related to terrorism . The government even claimed it had disrupted a covert destabilization operation to blow up power plants and oil facilities.

However, Heath’s legal team has argued that the allegations on national TV came several days after his detention. A police report and photos taken during Heath’s arrest, and shown during a local news conference announcing it, make no mention of nor provide evidence of heavy weapons the government said days later it had seized, defense lawyers said.


© 2021 Miami Herald

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