Aryenis Torrealba and Alfredo Chirinos are committed Chavistas and mid-level employees of Venezuela’s state-run oil company, PDVSA. On February 28th, they were detained, only later discovering that they were accused of treason and leaking strategic information to the United States. No evidence has been presented to prove these accusations, but they remain behind bars 100 days after the arrest.
After a recent Chavista concentration in front of the Prosecutor’s Office in Caracas, demanding their immediate release, we spoke to Iracara Chirinos, sister of Alfredo and spokesperson for the committee that works to free them.
Who are Aryenis Torrealba and Alfredo Chirinos?
Aryenis and Alfredo are JPSUV [the PSUV’s youth organization] militants from working-class Chavista families. Alfredo’s dad is a former guerrilla and a member of the ANC while Aryenys’ mother is part of the PSUV structure in Lara state, heading a UBCH [basic organizational structures of the PSUV at a local level].
Alfredo and Aryenis are popular art performers: Alfredo is a “zanquero,” clown and theater actor, and Aryenis is a talented photographer and aerial acrobat.
They are both engineers and PDVSA career functionaries. After graduating from university, they were hired as assistant analysts in PDVSA’s Commercialization and Supply Office. From then on, they both began to ascend in the company’s ladder. At the time of their arrest, Alfredo was operations managing director and Aryenis was crude and waste managing director. Above them was the division head, the vice minister, and, of course, the oil minister and the president of PDVSA.
Alfredo and Alyenis are known for their extraordinary and principled work in PDVSA.
That is right. Aryenis developed formulas (legal and approved by the PDVSA directive) to circumvent some important hurdles set up by the US to sanction the shipping and supply companies that worked with PDVSA. In this way, she created conditions for importing fuel and additives while selling crude abroad. This has been publicly recognized by PDVSA workers in a detailed communique. Through her work, hundreds of millions of dollars were saved and gasoline kept coming into the country despite the sanctions.
Additionally, Alfredo and Aryenis had unbreakable ethical principles and this became a thorn in the side for corrupt and mafioso groups. As professional PDVSA staff, they had to review and approve certain transactions. When the transaction in question was problematic, they would not only not approve, they would also write on the report: “Not accepted due to the fact that this transaction would lead to a loss of X million dollars to the nation.” These reports were public in PDVSA’s intranet, and that generated much resentment… In fact, it is clear to us that their principled actions are the one and only reason that they are behind bars.
What happened on February 28th?
On Friday, February 28th at 11 am Aryenis and Alfredo were called to a meeting by PDVSA’s Prevention and Control Office [PCP], which is the company’s internal security organism. When they went into the meeting, they were surprised to see that it wasn’t just PCP, but also DGCIM [military counterintelligence organism] functionaries. Then, they went to each of their offices and the DGCIM officers reviewed documents.
Then, at least in Argenys’ case, they asked her to accompany the DGCIM officers because “the routinary proceedings were going to continue at the DGCIM headquarters.” When she entered the car that would take her to the DGCIM she was handcuffed. She understood then that she had been arrested although she wasn’t shown a warrant.
In Alfredo’s case, we were told that he was taken out of his office handcuffed.
How did the families find out about the arrests?
Aryenys’ co-workers called Jhensy, Aryenys’ sister, to ask if she knew anything about Aryenys. They also told her about the DGCIM’s visit, and that they had left PDVSA’s headquarters with officers accompanying them.
That is when the alarms set off. Venezuela’s Criminal Procedure Code establishes that when someone is arrested, it has to be done with an arrest warrant and the body making the arrest must communicate the proceeding to the arrestee’s lawyer or the family. That didn’t happen.
I should say here something that is very important. Venezuela’s constitution privileges human rights. In fact, we have a very advanced constitution and it states in its preamble that Venezuela is a “social state under the rule of law and justice,” breaking with the Fourth Republic’s criminal practices. This is not just ink on paper: during the last twenty years there has been a new chapter, based on leaving behind former abuses of power. It has been done through a profound reform of the police and laws that consolidate our rights and our commitment for freedom and collective wellbeing.
We know that to be so, and that is one of the reasons why this case concerns us so much! According to the Venezuelan law, the arrested party must be presented before a judge within 48 hours of the detention. Did this happen and, if so, how?
On Sunday, March 1st they were presented before the 15th Tribunal for Corruption Control. However, we infer from the circumstances and the limited information we have, that no evidence has been presented regarding corruption and they were not charged at that time.
On Monday, March 2nd in the late evening, they were presented before the 20th Tribunal for Terrorism Control, which deals with crimes falling under the “Terrorism Law” [name commonly given to the Law Against Hatred, for Peaceful Cohabitation and Tolerance] passed by the National Constitutive Assembly in 2017 to fight against the opposition's violent guarimbas.
What, then, are the charges against them?
The prosecutor presented four charges: (1) handing over strategic information, (2) corruption, (3) criminal association, and (4) treason and terrorism.
I should add here that in those early stages, Alfredo and Aryenis were not allowed to have their own defense, appointed by the family, which is a right of the defendant. They were represented instead by a public defender. The lawyer designated by the family presented himself before the judge on three occasions on Monday, March 2nd, and Aryenys and Alfredo demanded their own lawyer, but they were denied their right.
One of the issues that concerns us is that on national television and in the statements of public officials Aryenis and Alfredo’s have already been condemned. What can you tell us about this?
That began on March 2nd in the morning, hours before the prosecutors made the accusation before the judge. At that time the Presidential Commission (named by President Maduro one week before for PDVSA’s restructuring) made public a communique via VTV [Venezuela’s national TV channel] giving Alfredo and Aryenis’ name and IDs and stating that they are “high-level collaborators” of the US government.
The communique was repeated throughout the day. This is particularly shocking because the government doesn't engage in televised character assassination when individuals or groups of the opposition engage in overt acts of violence or are proven to be linked to coup attempts and mercenary invasions.
Regarding the communique, it should also be noted that it doesn’t say “alleged collaborators” of the US government. It actually gives a verdict. In addition to that, the communique affirms that the US government recognized them as collaborators. To say the obvious, no evidence of this (or anything substantive) has ever been demonstrated!
This public communique broadcast on national TV provoked, in response, a wave of solidarity since Alfredo and Aryenis are well known among Chavista militants (and because it is rather odd that only seven days after the appointment of the commission, it had final results regarding internal espionage). That is why we call this a televised character assassination.
Additionally, on March 7th, General Reverol, the Minister of Justice, presented the case to the nation, again on national television announcing their “treason” and saying that they are the responsible parties for the sanctions imposed by the US since 2016! That is truly amazing: not only was he condemning Alfredo and Aryenys, but he was also absolving Juan Guaido, Julio Borges, Lilian Tintori and all the people who have traveled to the US, met with representatives of the US government, and publicly asked for sanctions.
This is all the more offensive because Aryenis developed procedures to get around sanctions on PDVSA. That is a well-known fact, made public through a PDVSA workers’ communique released a few days after the detention.
You have said that there is no substantive evidence in Alfredo and Aryenis’ case, but what about the charges regarding leaking information to the US?
That is a good question. As it turns out, the information that they are accused of “leaking” to the US is data that Venezuela releases to the OPEC monthly and then the OPEC publishes on its page on a regular basis, or information published in agencies such as Rysdad Energy. They are also accused of releasing oil tanker movement, which can be freely tracked online in real-time by anybody!
There is an allegation that Alfredo was tortured during the initial interrogation. Can you tell us more about this?
First, and again this is very important for the family and the solidarity committee, the Venezuelan state does not have a pattern of using torture. Our legal system is very clear about this issue.
However, we have to denounce that Alfredo and Aryenis were tortured for 48 hours. This is not hearsay. In Alfredo’s case, I saw the marks on his body with my own eyes.
Also, and this must go on record, on the day of their arraignment before the judge, Alfredo showed his torso to the judge to show the bruising that had resulted from the interrogation. To that, the judge said that he should cover himself up since the issue wasn’t relevant.
Nine days after the arrest, we were able to see Alfredo for thirty minutes and Aryanis’ family was able to visit her the day after. Our meeting was recorded and it didn’t last more than half an hour.
Since we had been informed that on the presentation before the judge, Alfredo had shown bruising on his torso, the first thing I did when I saw him was to lift his shirt and indeed, I was able to see that his back and ribs were all very bruised. He told us that he had been battered for 48 hours and he got neither food nor water during that period. The interrogators never asked Alfredo anything, their only objective was to get him to declare himself guilty.
Paradoxically, during the interrogation, they showed him a US visa as “evidence.” This is absurd because Alfredo has no passport!
Finally, I should add that we haven’t been able to see Aryanis and Alfredo since that initial visit.
Have you been able to talk to them on a regular basis?
The inability to communicate has been an ongoing problem since their arrest. Alfredo was able to call home on March 4 for the first time, and Aryenis wasn’t given a chance to communicate with her family until ten days after the arrest.
We haven’t been able to see them since then, and the calls come in at random times, in between ten days and 29 days from one to the next. When Alfredo calls, he says “I’m fine, don’t talk to me, just listen,” and he tries to give us information for the defense since the lawyer hasn’t been allowed to meet or talk with them. And, by the way, the calls are very short, ranging around two minutes.
When Aryenis calls, the whole thing is equally rushed. She is barely able to say that she is fine and ask how the family is doing.
More recently, we have noticed that pressure on social media helps. Twitter “storms” are important to keep the process of defending them going, and they actually open up the way of communication with them. It is common to see the hashtag #AryenisYAlfredoInocentes [Aryenis and Alfredo are innocent] trending on twitter.
Actually, the support from the Chavista popular movement for Alfredo and Aryenis has been massive. You mention Twitter storms and other social media campaigns, but we have also seen mobilizations during the pandemic, online concerts, etc.
The support has been massive. The old and the young, organizations and public figures, musicians and intellectuals, PSUV militants and whole parties such as the PCV and the PPT have mobilized in support of them.
Last Thursday, on June 4, we had a demonstration in front of the Prosecutor’s Office in Caracas involving the PCV, PPT, popular organizations, as well as many individuals. We all demanded the immediate release of Alfredo and Aryenis.
Everyone asks the same questions: Why were Aryenis and Alfredo really arrested? What is the evidence? Where is the due process?
These are all good questions. They are difficult ones, but they must be asked not only because Aryenis and Alfredo are innocent and must be freed, but also because we are committed to the Bolivarian Revolution which has an extraordinary track record in terms of human rights – correcting so many injustices inherited from the earlier Fourth Republic.
This new chapter in justice must be defended, because we have an extraordinary constitution and laws that grant us rights, and because we are Chavistas and as such we are obliged to question the institutions when they go astray.