Family of retired sailor detained in Venezuela awaits word on fate

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More than nine months after his arrest and imprisonment in Venezuela, retired U.S. sailor Matthew Heath is scheduled to appear before a judge on Thursday.

The Tennessee man was arrested by Venezuela on September 10 and charged with domestic terrorism, a charge his family strongly denies.

His arrest came four months after a failed coup in May that then showed signs of betrayal from within. It resulted in the death of six Venezuelan liberators and the arrest of two former Green Berets, now sentenced to 20 years in prison.

“We have faith in Matthew’s innocence and understand that he is being used as a pawn by the Venezuelan government to get some sort of concession from the US government,” Heath’s aunt Trudy Rutherford said in a statement in Miami. Herald, el Nuevo. Herald and the Washington McClatchy Office.

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This courtesy photo of his family shows Matthew J. Heath, a retired U.S. Navy and security contractor from Tennessee, now detained in Venezuela on charges of espionage and terrorism. His family deny this and say he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

While Heath’s family have been made aware of legal proceedings scheduled for Thursday, they are unsure of what to expect and have asked for mercy.

“We call on Presidents Biden and [Nicolás] Maduro to do everything in his power to bring this innocent man back to his 12 year old son, his mother Connie and his father Bobby, “said the statement from Heath’s family in the Knoxville area.

Held in near solitary confinement, Heath was able to meet with his Venezuelan lawyer on Tuesday, although it is not known what was discussed or what condition he is in now after the lengthy detention.

Heath had a hearing earlier in late February, where he spoke about the conditions of his captivity. Speaking to his local TV station WABE, Heath’s mother Connie Haynes said she learned of the hearing after the fact and Heath testified he had been abused.

“He was tortured, they put plastic bags on his head, electric shocks, he was beaten several times… it lasted eight days,” she told the TV channel. The family continues to raise funds for his defense.

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A screenshot from a Venezuelan state television show shows the alleged arsenal seized when retired US sailor Matthew J. Heath was arrested there in September 2020. His family in Tennessee denies accusations that the veteran of the war in Iraq was a spy or a terrorist.

Venezuelan judicial sources, speaking on condition of anonymity for their safety, declined to comment on the highly sensitive case other than to say that Heath was being treated by the Maduro regime as a terrorism case.

These sources have nervously warned that even questioning the status of the case could result in a prosecutor in an interrogation session with intelligence agents.

Heath’s arrest was touted as a terrorism case from the start, with the regime claiming to have halted a covert operation to sabotage power plants and oil facilities in an attempt to destabilize the government.

“There is no evidence to support this,” Heath’s mother told the local TV station in February.

Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab described Heath as a mercenary and alleged that a number of items he was holding linked him to the Central Intelligence Agency.

“An American citizen and suspected military soldier has been found carrying out espionage activities to destabilize Venezuelan territory,” Saab said upon news of Heath’s arrest.

The Biden administration declined to comment on details of her case, but said it was monitoring events closely.

“The well-being and security of American citizens abroad is one of the State Department’s highest priorities,” a senior administration official said. “We are aware of reports of the arrest and subsequent incarceration of an American citizen in Venezuela. For confidentiality reasons, we have no further comments.

Among the challenges facing diplomats and family is the fact that the Trump administration has recognized lawmaker Juan Guaidó like the real leader of Venezuela. This makes it difficult to negotiate with the now unrecognized Maduro regime, which still maintains its firm grip on power.

Heath, who turns 40 in July, is being held at DGCIM Boleita headquarters, a five-story building located between a bank and an industrial building on a low-traffic avenue in Caracas.

The holding cells are in one of two basements, initially adapted to serve as a detention area during investigations.

Over the next few years, Boleita became a long-term detention center for high-value political and military prisoners, Venezuelan Air Force Lieutenant Nelson Rincón said. He worked in the building as an intelligence officer and was then held inside for a few days after breaking away from the regime.

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This screenshot from a Venezuelan photo document aired on the country’s state television channels purports to show the alleged arsenal seized when American Matthew J. Heath and several Venezuelans were arrested in September 2020.

“It is now used as a detention center and some have been held there for more than five years,” said Rincón, an exile in Florida. “Usually these cells don’t have a place to sleep for prisoners, and they are only allowed out of the basement for an hour a day to enjoy the sun.”

Rincón heard about torture during the four years he worked there and said he himself was beaten there when he was arrested in 2012 for disobeying an order. Soon after, he deserted and fled to the United States.

The allegations of torture were then reported by a fact-finding mission appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate human rights violations in Venezuela in 2016.

In its report, the mission said it found “reasonable grounds to believe” that security forces in Venezuela planned and committed serious human rights violations “, including the torture of political dissidents.

Heath appears to be one of six “political” detainees remaining there, the other five being former Venezuelan military officers.

Several people familiar with the facility report that it was largely emptied, in part due to human rights complaints. Ring fences have also been recently erected around the high security center.

Heath is one of nine people detained by the Maduro regime who are U.S. citizens or green card holders. The private hostage negotiator Bill Richardson, a former UN ambassador, is trying to secure their release.

Few people expect more than jail time for Heath from Maduro’s government.

Heath’s scheduled court appearance will come a day after a Swiss summit between President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Russia’s support for Maduro has been a tipping point for relations now at their lowest.

Heath, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, effectively became a bargaining chip in the larger horse trade between the Biden administration and Venezuela.

With Heath and the two captured Green Berets – Airan Berry and Luke Denman – Venezuela also owns the Citgo Six. These men worked for the Houston-based Citgo refinery, which until recently was majority owned by the Venezuelan government.

The six Citgo employees received sentences ranging from eight to 13 years for allegedly conspiring to defraud the company in a planned refinancing of $ 4 billion of Citgo bonds. They were arrested after arriving in 2017 for what they were told was an urgent corporate meeting in Venezuela.

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This screenshot shows the fundraising page for Matthew J. Heath, the decorated retired U.S. Marine, captured in Venezuela in September 2020 and charged with espionage and terrorism.

Initially, the Maduro government hoped that captured Americans could be exchanged for benefits such as easing sanctions against regime members or lifting the US ban on third countries supplying diesel fuel to Venezuela.

But recently Venezuela signaled what it really hopes to trade for Americans – the end of the attempted extradition to the United States of financier Alex Saab..

Of Colombian origin, Saab has held several quasi-diplomatic posts for the Maduro regime and is wanted in the United States for money laundering. The Justice Ministry has also brought drug trafficking charges against Maduro and his relatives.

Saab, who is not linked to the Venezuelan attorney general of the same last name, is fighting the extradition of the West African nation of Cape Verde. The country’s Supreme Court approved his extradition in March, but the decision has been appealed to a constitutional court.

Investigative reporter Kevin G. Hall shared the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for the Panama Papers. He was a Pulitzer finalist in 2010 for his reporting on the US financial crisis and won the Sigma Delta Chi 2004 for best foreign correspondence for his series on modern slavery in Brazil. He is the past president of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing.
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Galardonado periodista con more than 30 years of experiencia, especializado in the cobertura de temas sobre Venezuela. Lover of history and literature.



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