CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan law enforcement officers arrested an oil workers’ union leader last fall in part due to concerns his tweets about fuel shortages would “generate commotion and panic,” according to a transcript of a court hearing reviewed by Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: People with vehicles wait in line in an attempt to refuel at a gas station of the state oil company PDVSA in Maracaibo, Venezuela, May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Isaac Urrutia/File Photo/File Photo

Neither the South American country’s prosecutors nor any of its law enforcement agencies have commented on the arrest of Eudis Girot, an executive director of the OPEC nation’s FUTPV union – the main union for workers at state oil company PDVSA – who accused officials of “criminalizing protest” while attempting to detain him.

But in a hearing on Nov. 27, just a week after his arrest, prosecutor Yorman Flores said officers from Venezuela’s military counterintelligence directorate (DGCIM) invesitgating an alleged plot to destabilize the country’s oil industry came across tweets from Girot’s account, @eudisgirot, that “revealed strategic information” from PDVSA.

Flores accused Girot of “sending messages to create commotion and panic in the population related to the shortage of fuel.”

“We know how sensitive the subject of the shortage of fuel is for the population,” Flores said in a Caracas court hearing over whether Girot should be held in pre-trial detention. “Airing this kind of information through a social network, and given the role occupied by the citizen who is here … could give it certain credibility.”

Prosecutors charged Girot with crimes including terrorism, release of confidential information, instigation of others to commit a crime and illicit possession of a firearm.

The contents of the hearing transcript have not been previously reported. Neither Venezuela’s information ministry nor the office of Venezuela’s chief prosecutor responded to requests for comment.

The judge ruled Girot should be held pending trial, and he remains in detention. Girot had initially been held at DGCIM headquarters in Caracas, largely home to detainees considered political prisoners by the country’s opposition, but has since been transferred to a jail known as El Rodeo in the city’s outskirts.

Venezuela denies holding political prisoners.

Labor leaders in Venezuela have long alleged that they face persecution if they criticize the government. Ruben Gonzalez, the president of a steel workers union, was arrested in 2018 after leading a protest, though he was pardoned in 2020.

The country’s political opposition accuses President Nicolas Maduro of using the justice system to stifle criticism of his government, which has overseen an economic collapse since taking office in 2013. Girot’s arrest came amid a broader crackdown on union leaders who were critical of PDVSA’s management.

‘NOT A SECRET’

Venezuela suffered debilitating gasoline shortages throughout 2020, with PDVSA’s refining network operating well below nameplate capacity of 1.3 million barrels per day (bpd) after years of underinvestment. U.S. sanctions have complicated its ability to import fuel.

In response to the prosecutors’ statements, Girot said he was innocent of all charges and told the court that as a union leader, he was not in possession of confidential information. He said he never intended to generate alarm, and wanted to tell Maduro that workers had proposals to resolve gasoline shortages.

“The situation at the refineries is not a secret to anyone,” Girot said. “What is the terrorism? Terrorism is the low salaries we are subjected to, which cannot buy anything.”

Girot’s defense attorney, Alejandro Cantillo, told Reuters in a telephone interview that Girot, as a worker rather than an executive or board member, did not have access to confidential information.

“The accusations do not have a leg to stand on, they are all over the place,” Cantillo said, adding that the case had a “political tint” given internal disputes within the labor movement. “There is absolutely nothing in the case file that backs up the allegations.”

Flores, the prosecutor, did not respond to a request for comment sent via LinkedIn.

In the hearing, Flores did not specify which tweets in particular he was referring to. On Nov. 11, a week before he was arrested, Girot wrote a post saying “The Iranian gasoline has run out,” a reference to fuel Venezuela imported from its OPEC ally in September and October.

Flores also made reference to an interview Girot had given on Jan. 3, 2020 in which he had allegedly divulged confidential information, without providing further details. He also referred to acts of protest in which Girot allegedly participated in 2012 and 2014.

Flores said the military counterintelligence officers who arrested Girot at his home in the eastern Venezuelan city of Lecheria found a firearm and ammunition on site.

Cantillo said in the hearing that witnesses of the operation did not corroborate that account, according to the transcript.

Reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Luc Cohen in Caracas; Editing by Steve Orlofsky

Source: Reuters