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Virtual reality allows one Venezuelan torture survivor to share his experience

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

To learn about the Holocaust and other horrific events, we can visit museums and historic sites like Auschwitz. But how do we grasp the abuses of modern-day dictators when their jails and torture chambers are off limits to outsiders? In Venezuela, one former political prisoner has recreated his brutal experience behind bars through virtual reality. Reporter John Otis has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICTOR NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Victor Navarro, the narrator of this virtual reality tour, explains that we are now inside the Helicoide. It's a notorious, spiral-shaped building in Caracas that houses dozens of Venezuelan political prisoners.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Through computer-generated 3D images, Navarro leads us into a dank, overcrowded dungeon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLIES BUZZING)

OTIS: Flies buzz. Water drips. Cockroaches scurry away. We then hear a former political prisoner recalling how a guard shoved a pistol in his mouth. Another describes nearly suffocating when a guard pulled a plastic bag over his head.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "That's when the real torture began," he says. "I don't know how many times I fainted." There's even sound secretly recorded by another prisoner of a detainee screaming as guards shock him with electricity. The tour is deeply disturbing, but that's the point. It was created by Navarro, a Venezuelan human rights activist who was falsely accused of conspiring against authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro. He was detained at the Helicoide for 129 days.

NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "When you get out," he says, "you are not the same person." Navarro lost 40 pounds, had recurring nightmares and couldn't remember people's names. He wrote a book about his experience, but it failed to capture the true horror of the Helicoide.

NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Then, he says, he took a virtual reality tour of the house of Holocaust victim Anne Frank. It convinced him that VR technology was the best way to recreate the Helicoide. After working with VR designers and interviewing 30 former Helicoide prisoners, he put together a 25-minute tour. Navarro then hit the road, virtual reality headsets in hand, visiting some 20 countries, including the U.S.

JAVIER CORRALES: It has this right balance of conveying some of the horror without being too graphic.

OTIS: That's Javier Corrales, a Venezuela expert at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He and his students put on Navarro's headsets to go inside the Helicoide and were profoundly moved.

CORRALES: There is plenty of talk and exhibits about human rights violations and political prisoners on torture, but nothing like this and nothing as portable and as vivid as this technology can produce.

OTIS: Ironically, the Helicoide, which was built in the 1950s, was supposed to symbolize Venezuela's progress amid an oil boom. Its helix design suggests a spaceship.

ALFREDO ROMERO: It was supposed to be a shopping center or a convention center.

OTIS: That's Alfredo Romero, who heads the Venezuelan human rights group Foro Penal. He says the complex was never finished and was eventually occupied by the State Intelligence Service, which added prison cells. In 2014, the Maduro regime began arresting anti-government protesters, who filled up the Helicoide and other detention centers, according to Romero.

ROMERO: There have been almost 16,000 people that been in jail for political reasons.

OTIS: Now, as Maduro maneuvers for another six-year term in July's presidential election, his crackdown on dissent continues. Human rights groups put the current number of political prisoners at 264. That's why Navarro continues to spread the word through virtual reality.

NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "We are exposing what the Venezuelan government doesn't want people to see," he says. "It shows the scale of the crimes they are committing." For NPR News, I'm John Otis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADANNA DURU SONG, "POP!") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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