Antonio Maria Delgado
Within hours of being stopped on a rural road in Venezuela, former U.S. Marine Matthew Heath told a court Monday, he found himself naked and strapped to a wire mesh connected to a car battery that would shock him between questions from officers of the country’s military counterintelligence. A few hours later, at a different location, he was threatened with being raped with a nightstick if he did not give them the password to his satellite phone.
Accused of terrorism by the Nicolas Maduro regime, Heath was at a hearing in his case late Monday and became upset when he saw one of the men he said tortured him, who was at the hearing for the prosecution. “That’s him!” he screamed, visibly agitated. “That’s the one that hurt me!” The interruption prompted the judge to call him as a character witness and his testimony was so gripping that the magistrate took the unusual step of prolonging the hearing for the next two days.
The person Heath identified as his torturer was Reynaldo Hernández, an agent of the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence, DGCIM for its initials in Spanish, in Falcón state. Hernández was there alongside his supervisor, Maj. Marlon Salas Rivas, who was present during the interrogations, according to the former marine.
“It was a good day for the defense,” said Tamara Suju, who is a member of Heath’s legal team, summarizing text statements sent to her from the hearing by Heath’s main lawyer, Guillermo Heredia, who wrote: “It was a victory given that [the person] was identified, and is now subject to an investigation, [the person] who planted the weapons and explosives as evidence and who tortured Matthew.”
Heath, 40, was arrested four months after a botched coup in May 2020, launched from Colombia and led in part by a Florida company called Silvercorp USA, an effort that may have been stopped with the help of Venezuelan government infiltrators. Linking these events to Heath, the Maduro regime accuses him of being a spy and a terrorist and claims he was caught in Falcon state carrying weapons and explosives.
His family and lawyers, however, claim that he was caught in a series of misadventures while attempting to visit friends by boat to Aruba, a 19-mile-long former Dutch island that is just 15 miles off Venezuela’s northwest coast.
How he went from the boat to the volatile region inside Venezuela remains unclear. His family alleges he was kidnapped and extorted in Colombia before his arrest in Venezuela.
Although the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Venezuela under the Maduro regime, the State Department has said that it is monitoring Heath’s situation closely and on Jan. 21 issued a statement highlighting that the former marine had been wrongfully detained for 500 days.
“Matthew was arrested in September 2020 on specious charges, and his trial is still ongoing. We continue to seek his unconditional return and the release of all U.S. nationals wrongfully detained overseas, and Secretary [ Antony] Blinken is relentlessly pursuing Matthew’s release. To the Maduro regime officials who have imprisoned him, we call for him to be allowed to return to the United States so that he can reunite with his family,” it said in a press release.
Heredia’s optimism is due to his belief that the charges against Heath are so clearly trumped up that prosecutors would have an impossible time making them stick, but courts in Venezuela are under the strict control of the regime and serve more as instruments of political persecution than independent entities in the service of justice.
Judges are often instructed how to rule by the regime’s leadership, especially in high profile cases, dealing harsh sentences to dissidents and opposition leaders frequently brought in under fabricated charges, international human rights organizations have concluded in different reviews. In a number of instances where a judge has dared to disobey the political orders issued, they have been dismissed or have been charged with corruption.
In court testimony last year, Heredia said that Heath was tortured after his capture at a checkpoint in the lawless border area between Colombia and Venezuela called La Guajira. The legal team and his family claimed Heath 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.
In the hearing that lasted until after 3 a.m. Tuesday, Heath gave details of his first days in captivity, and said that within hours of his detention he was taken to a DGCIM installation in Falcón state, where he was forced to undress and locked inside a dark room.
“He was later taken outside and was tied to a car and while completely naked, he was doused with cold water and strapped to a wire mesh connected with cables to a car battery. He was interrogated with electric shocks and blows all throughout that night,” Suju recounted based on Heath’s testimony.
“The next day he was flown to Caracas and taken to a clandestine torture center ran by the DGCIM. There they took away all his clothes, leaving him again naked, and ordered another one of the prisoners there to rape him. When that did not happen because the prisoner wouldn’t, a member of the DGCIM approached him and threatened to rape him with the safety baton that they carry,” she added.
After that threat Heath agreed to give the agents the codes to access his satellite phone, whose contents they downloaded without finding any type of incriminating evidence, Suju said.
Unable to secure a confession or evidence against Heath and those arrested beside him, they had them all flown back to Falcón, where the agents feigned a new arrest, this time alongside evidence planted in the vehicle, Suju said.
But the irregularities related to the incriminating evidence surfaced again in the Monday night hearing.
“They could not justify the procedure used by the National Guard to present the evidence, and they lied once again concerning the evidence report given to the DGCIM because the National Guard first reported that the only objects found were a satellite phone and a black baseball hat,” Heredia wrote.
One of the main problems for the prosecutors that surfaced during the hearing was a broken chain of evidence, given that the car in which Heath was traveling and where the alleged evidence was found was left abandoned for close to six hours, Suju said.
After the second arrest at the scene, officials claimed they had found military-grade weapons inside the car, although some of them were later proven to be too large to fit inside the small compact vehicle.
Officials had also claimed that a black cap found was an official DGCIM hat — which first prompted the National Guard to contact the military intelligence unit — but the first report only states that it was a regular hat, Suju said.
“All they are doing here is to compile a criminal file based on false evidence and fake procedures to accuse an American citizen,” Suju said. “That is all they are doing.”
Facts on all sides of the case are hard to independently verify. From the beginning, Heredia has claimed that the initial police reports and photos, which he said show Heath and three Venezuelan men paraded before local media for having a large amount of U.S. dollars on them, were taken during the second fake arrest.
Five days after Heath’s initial media appearance locally, Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab appeared on national TV saying a CIA plot had been foiled and that Heath was a spy who had taken sensitive photos of oil installations, had rocket launchers in his trunk and high-powered rifles. They showed the arsenal on TV broadcasts, and claimed he had been carrying an encrypted satellite phone.
But Heredia claims that Heath was detained at a roadblock only because the National Guard soldiers wanted to confiscate his satellite phone.
“The claim that there were videos and photos of oil installations is false,” Heredia said. “That does not appear anywhere in the case files.”