Chavez Tightening Grip on Judges, Critics Charge
Venezuelan President's Reforms Called Threat to Rule of Law, Attempt to Undermine Recall Effort
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 20, 2004; Page A24
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Judge Miguel Angel Luna said he was sitting in his courtroom on Feb. 28 when prosecutors brought in two beer-truck drivers, who had been parked near an anti-government demonstration, and demanded that they be jailed.
But there were no charges against them, Luna recalled. So he set the two men free. Three days later he was fired by the president of the Supreme Court without explanation.
"The regime of President Hugo Chavez has turned our democracy into an autocracy," said Luna, 58, who has returned to his private law practice and believes that his only offense was to defy the political wishes of the president and his supporters. "Judicial autonomy has been lost, and that is the foundation of democracy."
Luna's case illustrates how politics has eroded the judicial system, threatening the rule of law in one of the world's most important oil-producing nations. The loss of judicial autonomy could affect an Aug. 15 national referendum on whether to recall Chavez, according to political and legal analysts in Venezuela and a report released last week by the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch.
The Chavez government presides over a judicial system where most judges can be fired at will. The National Assembly has also just passed a law that will allow Chavez and his allies to pack the supreme court with sympathetic justices who could end up deciding any challenges to the recall election, analysts said.
The government argues that it is cleaning up a corrupt and inefficient judiciary it inherited when Chavez was elected in 1998, and trying to rein in the anti-Chavez groups who backed a coup in April 2002 and a strike at the national oil company last year that cost the country billions of dollars. The justice system in Venezuela has historically been corrupt and Chavez fired hundreds of judges immediately after his election, a purge that was widely seen as necessary.
But critics said Chavez, a former paratrooper who led a failed coup in 1992, had gone beyond the changes needed to reform the judiciary. They said he was trying to silence dissent and create an authoritarian government in the style of Fidel Castro's Cuba.
"This is a political assault on the judicial system," said Pedro Nikken, a constitutional lawyer in Caracas. "It's making the judiciary a branch of the executive. They are going to use this to attack the dissidents and guarantee the impunity of any abuses of human rights or acts of corruption by the government."
In its report, Human Rights Watch said the "most brazen" challenge to the rule of law in Venezuela was a new statute pushed through the National Assembly by Chavez allies last month that expands the Supreme Court from 20 to 32 justices and allowed the Chavez-dominated assembly to fire and hire justices with a simple majority vote. Previously, firing a justice required a two-thirds majority.
The report said the new law amounted to a "political takeover" of the court. It said the law would allow Chavez and his allies to "pack and purge the country's highest court," which is currently split 10 to 10 between judges seen as loyal to Chavez and those viewed as his opponents. The report called on the Organization of American States to investigate.
"We are not talking about what could happen, we are talking about what is already happening," Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the group's Americas division, said at a news conference. He noted that on Wednesday pro-Chavez legislators voted to fire one Supreme Court justice and to begin proceedings to suspend two more. All three were widely seen as opponents of Chavez and had ruled against his wishes in recent high-profile cases.
Only 20 percent of Venezuela's 1,732 judges have tenure and job security; the rest are either provisional or temporary judges who can be fired at will by the Supreme Court's six-member administrative council, the report noted.
The Chavez government responded to the report with ferocious rhetoric.
The National Assembly's leadership said it would consider declaring Vivanco a "persona non grata" in Venezuela. Vivanco said he was detained briefly by federal political police at the Caracas airport as he left the country Saturday morning, which he described as an act of harassment and intimidation. Assembly President Francisco Ameliach Orta, quoted in local media, said the report reflected "total and absolute ignorance" and accused Human Rights Watch of "open and unpardonable meddling in the internal affairs of our country." He said the Supreme Court overhaul was passed by the National Assembly and represented the will of the majority of the Venezuelan people.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company