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Venezuela Denies ‘Psychological Torture’ Led Protester to Kill Himself in Prison

Rodolfo Gonzalez, dubbed 'The Aviator,' was an alleged operational chief in last year's Venezuela street protests. He apparently killed himself the night before he thought he'd be transferred to a general-population penitentiary.

by Alicia Hernández
Mar 16 2015, 7:15pm

Imagen por Fernando Llano/AP

Rodolfo González — a jailed opposition protester who was found dead in his Caracas cell last Friday — was either an idealistic citizen exerting his right to demonstrate in public, or, according to the government, an operational chief of an attempted coup in today's bitterly divided Venezuela.

Shortly after González was detained last April, President Nicolas Maduro had publicly labeled him "one of the brains of the insurrection to topple the government" in protests that swept the country in early 2014.

The government nicknamed him "The Aviator," and said they had found explosives, firearms, and large quantities of money in a search of González's home in the upper-middle class district of Macaracuay.

They called the retired pilot a principal leader of the 2014 guarimbas, the street blockades used by the Venezuelan opposition that resulted in violent confrontations with government forces or Chavistas.

On Thursday night, González apparently killed himself, the day before he believed he was scheduled to be transferred to a general-population prison — a fearful prospect in Venezuela.

Authorities said González died of mechanical asphyxia and choking, but did not specify how the jailed former pilot was found or what he used to kill himself. Gonzalez, 64, was buried Sunday at the huge Cementerio del Este in southeast Caracas.

The family and supporters of the retired commercial pilot are calling for justice in his death, blaming Maduro's government for "psychological torture" that might have led him to take his own life.

"It looks like an induced suicide," Ivette González, one of the pilot's daughters, told the newspaper El Nacional. "The psychological torture they inflicted on my father was a lot. We feel there was a strong, emotional pressure."

The prisoner's suicide came with new escalations in the back-and-forth diplomatic fight between Venezuela and the United States.

After White House officials called the oil-rich South American country a "national security threat" on March 9, and sanctioned seven senior Venezuelan officials, the Maduro-controlled National Assembly on Monday handed the president the right to govern by decree until December 31.

Over the weekend, Venezuelan's armed forces also performed military drills, in preparation of any more US aggression, Maduro said.

Related: A Condom Shortage Is Altering Young People's Sex Lives in Venezuela.

President Nicolás Maduro announcing the capture of "The Aviator."

At the pilot's burial, his survivors declined to speak to reporters.

But daughter Ivette González told El Nacional she learned that her father was told by a warden that he was "third in line" to be transferred, from an intelligence agency prison at an iconic building known as El Helicoide where he was being kept, to the Yare Regional Penitentiary, a dangerous general-population prison.

Still awaiting trial, González was effectively a public pariah after Maduro accused him of attempting a coup during the violent protests that claimed 43 lives last year. At Yare, González would be mixed with criminals who might not take kindly to a "golpista" among them.

His daughter said her father was also fearful of the aggressive body searches inmates and visitors have to undergo at common jails.

The government said it had nothing to do with González's death, and also warned against politicizing his apparent suicide.

In a statement released on Saturday, Gustavo González López, the current interior, justice, and peace minister, also said there had never been plans to transfer the pilot.

"At no moment was there any decision to transfer this citizen to another prison of the country, as some have wanted to show in the some media outlets," González López said.

"Let's not politicize this regrettable incident, which had nothing to do with the conditions of his imprisonment, which have always been respectful of human rights."

Related: Cuba Throws 'Unconditional Support' to Venezuela After New US Sanctions.

Josefa Alvarez de Gonzalez, center, stands among relatives and supporters before Rodolfo González's casket. (Photo by Alicia Hernández)

According to the family's social media accounts, González called his wife Josefa last Thursday evening at 9 pm, telling him to be ready with his official identification at El Helicoide the following morning at 7 am, because he was being transferred.

After the phone call, the man known as "The Aviator" began handing out his belongings to other prisoners, said Gerardo Carrero, the father of a man who was jailed in the cell next to González.

"He was saying goodbye," Carrero told VICE News.

At 11 pm, the man's son heard a loud thud in González's cell. He called the pilot's name several times, but heard only silence. Carrero's son began yelling for guards, and González was found dead.

She said she shared many 'struggles, marches, logistical meetings' with González, and 'many things that are better kept untold.'

Human-rights groups said they would be adding the case of Rodolfo González to a list of complaints to be filed in an upcoming session of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

Rafael Uzcátegui, director of the Venezuelan human-rights organization Provea, described González as one of several other political prisoners who have attempted or committed suicide in government custody.

As recently as March 10, opposition leaders called for the formation of a commission to investigate conditions for political prisoners in Venezuela. But the proposal went nowhere with the Maduro-supporting majority in the National Assembly.

"Things like this could be avoided if a trustworthy mixed commission could be examining the conditions of detention of those in custody," Miguel Pizarro, an opposition lawmaker who had proposed the idea, told reporters on Friday.

"We could have at least heard this person in his living voice [describe] the psychological and emotional condition that would take him to make such a tragic decision," Pizarro added.

At González's burial on Sunday, people who did not personally know the pilot also gathered to pay their respects. Some called him "a great patriot."

"He gave himself up for the students," a woman who identified herself as Carmen B. told VICE News. "He'd get water and food for the young people in the marches. Some would show up at his house when they had nowhere to stay."

Carmen B., standing with a group of women wearing necklaces in the colors of Venezuela's national flag, said she shared many "struggles, marches, logistical meetings" with Rodolfo González — and "many things that are better kept untold."

Related: Basic Medications and Breast Implants in Short Supply in Deepening Venezuela Crisis.

Follow Alicia Hernández on Twitter @por_puesto.