Animal activist incarcerated for alleged offensive tweet freed in Venezuela

Jonatan Palacios, freed on Monday after spending 930 days in a hellish Venezuelan prison for tweeting a photo a government official found offensive, said he often wished for death during his ordeal, overpowered by what he considers a heinous act of injustice committed against him and the belief that there is no holding accountable those responsible.

“I had already given up living,” Palacios told the Miami Herald from Colombia. “I did not want to live under those circumstances and I wanted to die; many times I wished for death during this nightmare”.

The animal activist and former Miami resident said there is very little room for hope at the Santa Ana prison where he was held, in the western state of Tachira. Fed poorly, prisoners at times have to pay bribes to obtain food and on occasion resort to killing cats, dogs or pigeons.

Having devoted his life to the protection of animals, Palacios said he immediately tried to aid the strays running free inside the prison, but often to no avail given the hunger inside the prison walls. He was able to keep four cats with him outside the prison that are now with him in Colombia. “The only thing that I took with me when I left Venezuela were those four cats”.

Cats rescued by activist Jonatan Palacios from a Venezuelan prision
Cats rescued by activist Jonatan Palacios from a Venezuelan prision

But worse than the constant hunger and the outbreak of illnesses plaguing the inmates who are left without medical attention is the fact that a large number of them are actually innocent of committing crimes other than offending, or otherwise getting in the way of, regime officials.

“It is terrifying what I lived inside that prison, what I experienced every day and what I leave behind: all those innocent people that are dying due to malnutrition, due to diseases with no medical attention. I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say that it is simply madness; what I lived in Venezuela is terrifying”, he said.

The tragic chain of events that led to Palacios’ imprisonment began in January 2021, when he received news that the vehicle occupied by family members and workers of his animal shelter had fallen off a cliff, killing three people, including his 4-year-old adopted daughter.

He later found out that night that the accident was caused by tanker trucks traveling illegally at night in the mountainous road with their headlights turned off to avoid detection.

Angered by his tragic loss, Palacios initiated a denunciation campaign through social media asking officials to hold responsible the people that had caused the accident. But instead of justice, Palacios’ public denunciations landed him in jail. The reason? The trucks, which belonged to the state-run oil company PDVSA, were carrying fuel for a smuggling ring headed by a high-ranking government official.

The final straw was when Palacios tweeted a photo of the country’s attorney general, Tarek Saab, posing next to a monkey, while protesting his lack of action in the case.

Palacios was arrested and tortured and sent to prison on a dozen different charges, for which there were no real evidence. In the end, it was the picture of Saab posing with the monkey posted in social media for which he was convicted.

“I was found guilty of ‘insulting a person invested with public authority’, that is a crime that does not exist in the Venezuelan law,” Palacios said. The situation is even more grievous considering that the photo posted in X, formerly known as Twitter, had previously been posted by Saab himself and that Palacios had only added the cutline, “What do you think?”

Palacios is free only because the Colombian government finally got involved in his case, thanks to the actions taken by Colombian Sen. Andrea Padilla Villarraga, another animal lover, on his behalf. Efforts undertaken by Padilla led to a meeting held last week between the Colombian ambassador to Venezuela, Milton Rengifo Hernández, with Saab, who agreed to free the activist.

With the decision, Saab’s role in the case went full circle, going from the allegedly aggrieved, to prosecutor, to judge and jury, a further sign that laws and legal procedure has little weight in judicial decisions in Venezuela, Palacios said.

While happy he is no longer in prison, Palacios said he is having a hard time adjusting to his new reality, adding that he wants the Colombian government to become aware that hundreds of Colombians are currently unjustly detained in Venezuela.

He said that what happened to him should be taken as evidence that justice is non-existent in Venezuela.

“The entire system is corrupt. Everything moves on corruption. Without it, nothing gets done,” he said. “Officials use their ID cards, their shields and their weapons to destroy lives. They destroy hundreds of them every day.”