Activists use virtual reality to transport users to Venezuela’s El Helicoide | EUROtoday

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On Tuesday night, the hustle and bustle in Times Square was the identical as another day: hectic crowds making their manner throughout streets beneath towering skyscrapers, with a kaleidoscopic show of billboards shining over them. But amid that common frenzy, tearful cries often rang out from folks carrying vibrant white virtual reality headsets — as they skilled for themselves the torture former prisoners have stated they confronted in considered one of Venezuela’s most infamous prisons.

In five-minute increments, vacationers, reporters and passersby have been transported to the darkish, mold-filled and cockroach-infested halls of El Helicoide — a virtual reality expertise based mostly on interviews with 30 former detainees, together with political prisoners, college students and activists. In it, real-life screams of agony recorded by a detainee who smuggled a telephone into the jail pierce by means of a montage of gut-wrenching photos. The simulation was created by Voces de la Memoria — voices of reminiscence — a nonprofit that makes use of expertise to advocate for human rights and whose founder, Victor Navarro, was arbitrarily detained in El Helicoide, the place he stated he was tortured.

In considered one of New York City’s most iconic locations, the aim was to stage a protest demanding the closure of services comparable to El Helicoide and the liberation of Venezuela’s practically 300 political prisonersNavarro stated. But it was additionally a rallying cry for the worldwide group to not lose sight of what the United Nations has stated are systematic crimes in opposition to humanity happening within the South American nation.

“The world needs to know that people are still being tortured in Venezuela,” Navarro informed The Washington Post. “More than 300,000 people visit Times Square every day. In such a congested city, we wanted people from all over the world to stop for a second and immerse themselves into what’s happening in Venezuela.”

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Human rights nonprofit Voces de la Memoria used former detainees’ testimony to craft a VR expertise about torture in considered one of Venezuela’s most infamous prisons. (Video: Voces de la Memoria)

About a mile from the protest that introduced collectively former political prisoners, activists, and members of the Venezuelan, Cuban and Nicaraguan diasporas, a whole lot of delegates and dignitaries from everywhere in the world filed into the U.N. headquarters for its 78th General Assembly session. It was in opposition to that backdrop that the Venezuelan activists hoped to carry consideration to their trigger.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela launched its fourth report since 2019, when it was established by the Human Rights Council to examine allegations of gross violations of human rights, together with extrajudicial killings, pressured disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture.

Previous paperwork delved into these abuses and the justice system’s response to violations. Last 12 months’s report recognized President Nicolás Maduro and his interior circle because the “main architects” in a equipment meant to silence, discourage and quash opposition to the federal government.

This time, the mission discovered repression in opposition to some teams has intensified as Venezuela gears up for subsequent 12 months’s presidential election. Based on interviews with virtually 300 folks, it discovered that politicians, labor leaders, journalists and human rights activists are more and more being subjected to detention, surveillance, threats, defamation campaigns and arbitrary felony proceedings.

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Maduro and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, which runs El Helicoide, didn’t reply to requests for remark from The Post. However, when the primary report revealed in 2020, the federal government — which hasn’t allowed the Fact-Finding Mission to enter Venezuela — denied its findings and insisted that the nation respects human rights.

The Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela documented not less than 5 arbitrary deaths, 14 short-term pressured disappearances and 58 arbitrary detentions between January 2020 and August 2023 — in addition to 28 instances of torture and inhumane remedy throughout the identical interval. Detainees have been usually subjected to beatings, suspension from the wrists or ankles, suffocation with baggage generally sprayed with insecticide, sleep deprivation and sexual violence, in accordance to the report.

“The report validates everything that we’ve been saying and showing in the virtual reality experiences,” Navarro, the human rights advocate, stated. “We’re not just a group of crazy people telling lies. It’s the truth: Venezuela tortures people, and it happens every day.”

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As a 22-year-old youth organizer, Navarro stated he was arbitrarily detained in 2018 and held in El Helicoide. He had no contact along with his household and no entry to an legal professional. For 5 months, he stated he was disadvantaged of daylight and routinely overwhelmed. The picture of a guard laughing whereas inserting a loaded gun inside Navarro’s mouth nonetheless haunts him, he stated.

“It was a dehumanization that penetrates the most intimate part of your being to silence you, to question you and to even make you doubt your own existence,” Navarro stated.

After being launched in June 2018, Navarro stated he “quickly realized being out of El Helicoide didn’t mean freedom.” He was prohibited from leaving the nation or speaking to the press and had to routinely current himself to Venezuelan authorities, he stated. He determined to flee to Argentina, the place he’s now a refugee dwelling in exile.

During the pandemic, Navarro’s post-traumatic stress pushed him to write a e-book detailing his expertise inside one of many largest detention facilities in Latin America — however, when he was executed, “I realized that words couldn’t quite capture what I had lived through.”

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Then Navarro went by means of a virtual reality expertise about Anne Frank’s time within the Secret Annex: “I felt like in any moment, the Nazis were going to take me to a concentration camp,” he stated. “If I was able to empathize with Anne Frank, someone I don’t know and who lived in another time, maybe others would be able to empathize with what happened in El Helicoide.”

Shortly after, Voces de la Memoria was born. By combining interviews with former detainees and enter from psychologists, the group put collectively “a virtual museum of terror designed to generate action,” stated Francisco Marquez Lara, a senior adviser to the nonprofit who was detained in El Helicoide in 2016.

“Memory museums and experiences of this kind are usually done after the atrocities are over,” he stated. “But we know that time makes people lose a bit of interest and sensitivity, and we don’t want this to keep happening. This tool is an innovation in the fight for human rights that has the potential to reach people wherever they are and immerse them into something that isn’t talked about enough.”

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So far, the simulation has been seen by dozens of politicians and offered in 15 international locations and 45 exhibitions — however the plan is to “completely massify it,” Marquez stated, and make it accessible for anybody with a virtual reality headset. The primary aim, he stated, is for “world leaders to know what’s really going on in Venezuela. As they negotiate with Maduro, it’s critical that they understand that he’s behind crimes against humanity.”

In New York City, the virtual reality simulation gave its Times Square users an intimate look into El Helicoide’s alleged torture rooms as one of many overlooking billboards raised consciousness in regards to the expertise. Some wept, and others have been left speechless, however most viewers instantly started asking questions, Marquez and Navarro stated. For each former detainees, reliving their expertise is painful — however mandatory to stop any abuse from being stored at midnight.

“The worst thing that can happen to a political prisoner is oblivion,” Navarro stated. “But to see people wearing the headset and crying, empathizing or hugging me after, is such a profound sign of solidarity and gives me hope that we’re not alone — as hard as reliving this might be.”

That signal of hope got here amid the sound of about 100 folks in black T-shirts screaming “Freedom! Freedom!” into the air as evening fell Tuesday.

Human rights nonprofit Voces de La Memoria organized a protest in Times Square to demand the discharge of Venezuela’s political prisoners on Sept. 19. (Video: Francisco Marquez Lara)