Free at last!

Imprisoned supercop's escape from Venezuela

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

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WASHINGTON, DC, USA (AP) ­— As the last rays of sunlight faded into the Caribbean Sea, political fugitive Iván Simonovis was speeding toward an island rendezvous with freedom.

Three weeks earlier he had fled house arrest in the Venezuelan capital, rappelling down a 75-foot (25-metre) wall in the dead of night, then took a bolt cutter to his ankle monitor. Since then he had been furtively moving between safe houses to stay one step ahead of Nicolas Maduro's security forces.

It was a meticulous plan befitting his reputation as Venezuela's most famous SWAT cop.

But then, with freedom almost in sight, Venezuela's crisis dealt one final blow: The motor on his fishing boat conked out, choking on water and sediment clogging its gas tank — a growing problem in the once-wealthy OPEC nation as its crude supply dwindles and its refineries fall into disrepair.

“Nobody would've guessed that in Venezuela a motor would fail because of the gasoline,” the 59-year-old Simonovis told The Associated Press in his first comments since resurfacing Monday in Washington, after five weeks on the run.

That Simonovis can laugh about his ordeal is as much a testament to his jailers' incompetence as his own bravery. To date, there's been no official reaction to his escape last month after 15 years' detention — a possible sign that Maduro is too embarrassed to acknowledge his lack of control over his own security forces, some of whom helped Simonovis gain freedom.

“They are active members of the Maduro Government, but quietly they work for the Government of Juan Guaidó,” Simonovis said, referring to the Opposition leader recognised as Venezuela's president by the US and more than 50 other nations.

In 2004 the former Caracas public safety director was imprisoned on what he insists were bogus charges of ordering police to open deadly fire on pro-Government demonstrators who rushed to Hugo Chávez's defence during a short-lived coup. Nineteen people were killed in a gunfight that broke out on a downtown overpass.

Simonovis' nearly decade-long confinement in a windowless, 6-foot-by-6-foot (2-by-2-metre) prison cell, after a trial marred by irregularities, became a rallying cry for the Opposition, which viewed him as a scapegoat. His arrest order was signed by Judge Maikel Moreno, who as a lawyer had defended one of the pro-Chávez gunmen involved in the 2004 gunfight and who now heads the Supreme Court.

Similarly, Simonovis became a trophy for Chávez, who accused him of crimes against humanity — for which he was never charged — and erected a memorial on the overpass to those who died “defending the Bolivarian Constitution.”

Simonovis and the other police defendants — five of whom remain jailed — were given 30-year sentences, the maximum allowed by Venezuelan law, for complicity to murder.

Prosecutors were especially severe because of Simonovis' ties to US law enforcement and reputation for being incorruptible. He was catapulted to fame in 1998 by ending a seven-hour televised hostage stand-off with a sniper's bullet. Then as safety director, he brought former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton to Caracas to help clean up the capital's graft-ridden police force and tackle exploding crime.

In the decade that followed his imprisonment, Simonovis and the Opposition tried myriad ways to win his freedom: a hunger strike, appealing for a presidential pardon, and even attempting a run for congress so he could receive parliamentary immunity.

In 2014 he was granted house arrest so he could seek medical treatment for 19 chronic illnesses, some of them exacerbated by the fact that he was allowed only 10 minutes of sunlight a day.

In the wake of a failed April 30 military revolt called by Guaidó, Simonovis was tipped off that he could soon be put back behind bars. The security detail stationed permanently outside his home on a leafy street was increased from eight to 12 heavily armed agents, after Maduro named a hard-line loyalist to head the SEBIN intelligence police who the former head fled the country during the uprising.

“The one thing I knew is that I was never going back to prison,” Simonovis said. “So, I took the decision to leave my home and my homeland.”

Plotting the escape took weeks, with one clear finishing line — the US.

Leopoldo Lopez — Venezuela's most-prominent political prisoner until he bolted house arrest himself during the short-lived military uprising and sought haven inside the Spanish ambassador's residence— worked his extensive political contacts to secure the support of the US and two other foreign governments.

Among the tasks was getting permission to enter the US, since Simonovis' only identity document had expired a decade earlier.

He disappeared from his home in the dead of night on May 16. Inside a small bag he carried a flashlight, a pocketknife, a copy of his judicial sentence, and a biography of American astronaut Neil Armstrong.

“You can't sleep when you know the Government is looking for you,” he said.

Descending into a dark alley, he miscalculated and crashed loudly into an adjacent wall. But he quickly recovered and within 90 seconds was in the first of three cars that would drive him to an abandoned house.

“I approached this like a police raid, where every second is vital,” said Simonovis, who spent the nights prior to his escape unscrewing the fence behind his house and practising his descent on a staircase, anchoring knots he hadn't used since special forces training. “The speed with which you move is what guarantees your success, so you need to move quickly.”


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