By Fabian Cambero and Angus Berwick
CARACAS (Reuters) - A year and a half in Venezuela's feared prison system, deprived of food and water, caused opposition lawmaker Gilber Caro to lose 18 kg (40 lb), about a fifth of his body weight, he said.
At one point, Caro says he used a needle and thread to sew his lips shut for a five day hunger strike to protest at conditions. Prison authorities denied this account, which Reuters could not independently verify.
Now the 43-year-old, who was freed from jail in early June along with other opposition activists, said he wants to denounce the tactics employed by President Nicolas Maduro's government, despite a ban on those released talking to the media.
The unpopular Maduro has cast the release of dozens of opposition members as a peace gesture following his re-election to a new six-year term last month, which was condemned by most Western nations as an undemocratic farce. The United States imposed new sanctions on Venezuela's all-important oil industry.
In an interview, Caro, a leading member of hardline opposition party Popular Will, recounted how Venezuelan authorities moved him between solitary confinement in different jails to prevent him ever feeling settled.
He said he was given scant food and water and barred from seeing family members or lawyers. At his first jail in the city of San Juan de Los Morros in the state of Guarico, Caro said he spent four months without speaking to anyone.
"What I experienced was total isolation," Caro said, his face gaunt from weight loss.
The opposition and rights groups say Maduro's leftist administration is holding hundreds of political prisoners on trumped up charges intended to stifle dissent in the South American nation of 32 million people. They accuse the courts of pro-government bias.
The government denies the detainees are political prisoners. It says they were fairly jailed for committing violent crimes during protests.
While other detainees have complained about their treatment, Caro's comments to Reuters were the most detailed account of conditions in detention since the government began releasing several dozen prisoners on June 1.
Caro said he carried out his hunger strike at another prison in the central state of Carabobo by sewing his lips together after nine months behind bars. The experience left him with problems with his kidneys, he said.
Caro weighed less than 58 kg when he left the prison, his lawyer Ramon Carmona said. An official at the Carabobo prison said he was not authorized to speak and referred comment to the Prisons Ministry.
A spokesman for Venezuela's Prisons Ministry, Franklin Suarez, denied that Caro and other prisoners had been mistreated in prison, describing his account as "completely false."
Suarez confirmed Caro had carried out a hunger strike but said he stopped after four days because he "saw it was absurd." He denied Caro had sewn together his lips and said "there are no needles" in prison.
Venezuela's overcrowded and lawless jails are known for easy access to contraband, ranging from drugs and weapons to computers and mobile phones, rights groups say. Hundreds die each year in riots and gang fights.
"THEY CAN'T SCARE ME"
Critics say Maduro has resorted to increasingly authoritarian tactics as the OPEC nation's economy has spiralled deeper into recession and hyperinflation, fuelling discontent and prompting hundreds of thousands to emigrate in the past year. In total, about 125 people died in anti-government protests last year.
Maduro says the opposition protests were aimed at overthrowing him and accuses the United States of directing an "economic war" against Venezuela.
Announcing the release of opposition activists on June 2, Venezuelan Supreme Court president Maikel Moreno said the conditions imposed on some of those freed banned them from speaking with the media. He did not identify the prisoners or refer to Caro.
Caro said he was speaking out even if it meant authorities jailed him again. "I feel like I'm doing the right thing ... They can't scare me," he said.
Authorities jailed Caro in January 2017 without trial on charges of treason and stealing military material, according to his lawyer and the Popular Will party. Maduro at the time said Caro planned to carry out "terrorist attacks."
Caro will plead innocent at a hearing on June 26 ahead of his trial, his lawyer said. His parole prohibits him from commenting on the charges against him but not on his experience in jail, Carmona added.
Popular Will said in a report that Caro's case resembles those against other party members charged with illegally possessing weapons. The party said authorities had planted the weapons and accused its members of owning them. Venezuela's public prosecutor's office did not reply to a request to comment.
Caro said his worst episode occurred at the prison in Carabobo state when his jailers woke him one day at 3 a.m. and accused him of planning an escape.
They transferred him to the violent Fenix prison in neighbouring Lara state and stripped him of his books and few belongings. He was kept in handcuffs for 10 days, even while he slept.
In Fenix, Caro said he lived through a riot in May that, according to authorities, left nine prisoners and two guards dead.
Reuters was not able to contact the Fenix prison. State government officials did not respond to phone calls.
Caro said he had forgiven his jailers, as he wished to feel "peace in his heart," and said his time in prison has only strengthened his resolve to bring change to Venezuela.
But first, he said, he would like to rest for a week and go for a walk on the beach.
(Reporting by Fabian Cambero and Angus Berwick, Additional reporting by Tibisay Romero in Valencia and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O'Brien)