March 26, 2004

Political prisoners or imprisoned politicians?

It's a simple concept. A crime committed during a major political convulsion by politically motivated people enjoying the political support of a substantial part of the population is not a common crime. Such prisoners are different from common criminals, and are to be jailed separately. The concept was clear enough to Nelson Mandela's jailers - he spent years in a special facility for political prisoners on Robin Island. It was straightforward enough to the British government: they kept IRA criminals in separate jails as well. It was understandable enough to Perez Jimenez and Romulo Betancourt in Venezuela in the 50s and 60s: they also kept the prisoners they took for political reasons separate from common criminals. Even Chavez himself, jailed for his violent coup-attempt in February 1992, served his two years in Yare Jail in a special wing built and reserved for political prisoners. It's not a difficult concept.

Twelve years later, Chavez and his supporters can't seem to grasp any of this. Last night, in an astonishing display of bureaucratic brutalism, Human Rights Ombudsman German Mundaraín - a hardcore chavista - told reporters there are no political prisoners in Venezuela, merely "politicians in prison."

Eighteen activists remain locked up for their actions during political protests in the week following Feb. 27th. That much is a fact, acknowledged by both sides. Even if these people committed crimes, they are evidently political prisoners.

We're talking people like Carlos Melo - a long-time leftwing neighborhood activist with the Causa Radical party arrested by the government on (apparently unfounded) charges of holding military style weapons. We're talking even about my mayor, Henrique Capriles, an elected official who is now wanted for a two year old political case. They're now either serving (Melo) or facing (Capriles) time in some of Venezuela's most notoriously inhuman, violent, murderous prisons.

Melo, in particular, has proven himself a most uncommon prisoner. Not only have banners with his name and picture gone up at all recent opposition marches, but his inprisonment has gone somewhat differently from what the government imagined. Melo - a 30 year veteran of leftwing activism - is reportedly busy organizing his fellow inmates, trying to build a model of social organization inside the jail. "A prison community of shared stakeholders," he calls it, and reports are that the atmosphere at the notorious El Rodeo jail has changed decisively since he arrived. If these reports - which are very hard to confirm, obviously - are true, Melo has the prisoners getting together daily for morning exercises in the central courtyard, and working on community projects for the rest of the day.

"Common" prisoner, huh?

Still, the government and its proponents refuse to deviate from the mantra handed down from above. It's an incantation more than a political position, really...

There are no political prisoners, only people arrested for common crimes.
There are no political prisoners, only people arrested for common crimes.
There are no political prisoners, only people arrested for common crimes.

Repeated one and a million times, the line is meant to confuse an issue that reflects too clearly the government's authoritarianism. Nobody outside the Havana-Harare axis seems to be buying it. It's too evident, too plain that Carlos Melo and the others are political prisoners. John Kerry is not a stupid man.