Venezuelan judge is jailed after ruling angers President Hugo Chávez

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By Juan Forero
Sunday, April 25, 2010

LOS TEQUES, VENEZUELA -- Sitting in the tiny jail cell that has been her home for months, Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni said she knew a ruling she handed down in December might incense Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

But she was astonished when intelligence agents arrested her and the entire courtroom staff 15 minutes after she freed a prisoner the government wanted in jail.

"I never thought -- never -- that the violations would get to this point," said Afiuni, 46, who is being held here in a cellblock filled with women charged with drug trafficking and murder, some of whom she sentenced.

The jailing of a tenured judge who angered the president has brought into sharp focus the increasingly tight control Chávez exerts over the judiciary, a situation condemned by legal watchdog groups and constitutional experts across the Americas.

Advocates for an independent judiciary in Venezuela also say the judge's plight, along with the arrests of dozens of government opponents in recent months, demonstrates how far the Chávez administration will go to quell dissent.

"The message from the Afiuni case is very clear: If a judge doesn't do what we want, you go to jail," said Carlos Ayala, a constitutional lawyer and former president of the Andean Commission of Jurists. "Judges are scared out of their wits. Before, they got fired for these decisions. Now they go to jail."

Afiuni was charged with corruption and abuse of authority after she conditionally freed Eligio Cedeño, a banker who had run afoul of the government and was accused of evading currency controls. Cedeño waited in jail nearly three years for his first court hearing, which exceeded legal limits, Afiuni said in a recent interview. He fled the country and is seeking political asylum in Miami.

The Venezuelan attorney general's office said it could not comment on Afiuni's case. But in an interview, Carlos Escarra, a pro-Chávez congressman and legal expert, said "there's a series of actions that show a bribe was paid" to Afiuni, a charge she denies. In a speech the day after Afiuni was arrested, Chávez accused her of crimes "more serious than an assassination."

"I call for 30 years in prison in the name of the dignity of the country," he said.

More than any other case, Afiuni's arrest has alarmed independent justices and those who track Venezuela's judiciary. Bar associations from New York to Madrid have demanded her release, and thousands follow her through Twitter feeds. Her first court hearing has been postponed repeatedly by "suspicious delays," said one of her attorneys, Juan Ernesto Garanton.

"What has been really hard is knowing my fate is in Chávez's hands," Afiuni said. "Just as my detention was a result of the whim of the president, my release will also be a whim of his."

Chávez and ministers in his government frequently declared the judicial system in place before his election in 1998 a vestige of a corrupt system that needed to be jettisoned. In its place, the government in 2004 created a Supreme Court overwhelmingly sympathetic to the president, according to a recent report by the human rights arm of the Organization of American States, of which Venezuela is a member.


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