Venezuelan freelance photographer Jesús Medina Ezaine was detained in 2018 by intelligence agents and charged with inciting hate and criminal association. His case has been marked by repeated delays based on flimsy procedural grounds and has yet to go to trial.
On August 29, 2018, Venezuela's intelligence service, the Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional (SEBIN), detained Medina at a subway station in Caracas, according to news reports.
In a video posted to Twitter by Venezuela's National Union of Press Workers (SNTP), Peruvian journalist Juana Avellaneda, who was with Medina at the time of his arrest, said that he had been helping her and a Peruvian colleague with a reporting project in Caracas.
Avellaneda said the three journalists were waiting at the subway when a group of armed men approached them, appeared to recognize Medina, and asked if he knew the Peruvians, before taking him into custody. Avellaneda said the journalist told the agents he did not know the Peruvians, and that she believes if he had admitted knowing them, they would have been arrested as well.
At a hearing on August 31, 2018, a Caracas court charged Medina with money laundering, criminal association, illegal enrichment against acts of public administration, and inciting hate, according to news reports. The court sent him to the Ramo Verde military prison outside Caracas, pending trial, according to a tweet from María Fernanda Torres, a lawyer with the Venezuelan legal rights organization Foro Penal, who is part of Medina's defense team.
Under Venezuela's vague anti-hate law, passed in November 2017, the crime of "inciting hate" in the press or through social media is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. CPJ could not determine to which posts the charge relates.
Medina's photographs and videos have appeared on the website Dólar Today, which is based in the U.S. and publishes articles critical of Venezuela's socialist government. The site also provides information on the country's black-market exchange rate.
On September 10, 2018, Douglas Rico, the head of Venezuela’s criminal and forensic investigative police bureau (CICPC), told reporters Medina’s arrest was related to an incident the previous year in which the journalist said he was kidnapped. Rico said that the agency believed Medina faked his kidnapping, and that that authorities issued an arrest warrant for “simulation of a punishable act.”
Rico was referring to an incident in which the journalist went missing for two days. Medina had reported receiving threats over his work before being abducted on November 4, 2017, according to reports. Later that month, Venezuela’s National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello said on his television show, “Con el Mazo Dando,” that he believed the kidnapping may have been staged, according to reports. On November 23, 2017, Medina posted a video on Twitter that accused authorities of ordering his kidnapping.
CPJ could not determine when the arrest warrant was issued or why the court’s charges did not include a reference to the false kidnapping allegation. When CPJ called the CICPC about his case in November 2018, the person who answered said they did not have information about the case and that CPJ would need to visit its office in Caracas to get more details about the case.
Torres told Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional on September 1, 2018, that the legal team had 45 days to submit materials to the public prosecutor's office in Medina's defense. On October 15, 2018--after the 45 days had elapsed--the public prosecutor’s office ruled that Medina would remain in detention, Torres wrote on Twitter.
Authorities have previously harassed Medina over his work. In October 2017, authorities detained Medina while he was reporting at a prison in northern Venezuela with two international journalists, according to reports.
Under Venezuelan law, Medina's preliminary hearing--in which prosecutors offer justification for the formal charges--should have taken place within 45 days of his arrest. It was delayed eight times, the last time on May 2, 2019, according to news reports. On six occasions, the delay was because the court had not issued the order for Medina to be transferred from prison to court on time, and the hearing could not take place in his absence, Stefania Migliorini, a lawyer for Medina, told CPJ in a phone call. In the two other instances, the court had not requested the case file from an appeals chamber where it was sitting, which prevented the hearing from taking place, according to the same lawyer.
Medina’s preliminary hearing finally took place on May 23, 2019, according to press reports. The judge confirmed the charges of inciting hate and criminal association and dropped the other charges, and determined that Medina would remain in detention until the conclusion of his trial, those reports stated. On October 3, the scheduled start date for his trial, the court postponed it again, until December 5, Medina’s lawyer told CPJ.
Medina is in the Ramo Verde military prison outside of Caracas. In April 2019, Medina’s lawyer, Migliorini, reported via Twitter that he has been suffering from depression, and has lost about 22 pounds. No psychological assistance is provided in the prison. The lawyer confirmed the information regarding Medina’s health condition to CPJ in September, adding that Medina is losing his vision. She also said that they have submitted requests to the court to allow Medina to be taken to a medical facility for a health check-up to see an ophthalmologist, a dentist, a psychiatrist, and other medical specialists, but that the tribunal has ignored the requests.
CPJ called Venezuela’s Vice Presidency, which is the supervising agency of SEBIN, for comment, but no one answered the phone at the number provided on its website. CPJ was unable to find another way to contact SEBIN, or the Ramo Verde military prison. CPJ called CICPC at the phone number listed on their Twitter account, but the number appears to be disconnected. CICPC’s official website gave an error message when tried to access, as did the website for the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, which heads the judiciary in Venezuela.