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Venezuela: Stop Attacks on Judicial Independence

Release Judge Jailed for Upholding Venezuelan and International Law

(Washington, DC) – The detention of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni threatens judicial independence and the rule of law in Venezuela, Human Rights Watch said today. Venezuela has disregarded calls by UN and OAS human rights authorities to end her arbitrary detention and ensure her safety.  
Judge Afiuni was detained on December 10, 2009, the day she authorized the conditional liberty of Eligio Cedeño, a banker accused of corruption, on the basis that he had been in pretrial detention for almost 3 years, despite the 2-year limit prescribed by Venezuelan law. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions had declared Cedeño’s detention “arbitrary.” The authorities accused Afiuni of corruption, abuse of authority, and “favoring evasion of justice.” On December 11, President Hugo Chávez said Afiuni was a “bandit” and should be sentenced to 30 years in prison. Cedeño fled Venezuela and requested political asylum in United States a few days later.
“Throwing a judge in prison for doing her job and issuing a decision that upholds fundamental rights protected under both Venezuelan and international law is not something you’d expect in a functioning democracy,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Once again the Chavez government has demonstrated its fundamental disregard for the principle of judicial independence.”
A provisional judge, who has no security of tenure, is investigating the alleged case against Afiuni.  She remains detained in a prison for women, where she shares spaces with convicted prisoners, some of whom were tried before her. She has repeatedly been insulted and threatened by other inmates.
On December 16, three UN Rapporteurs called for the “immediate and unconditional release of Judge Afiuni,” saying that “reprisals for exercising their constitutionally guaranteed functions and creating a climate of fear among the judiciary and lawyers’ profession serve no purpose except to undermine the rule of law and obstruct justice.”
On January 11, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights ruled that Afiuni was entitled to protective measures. It ordered Venezuela to “adopt the necessary measures to guarantee the life and physical integrity of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni” and to “transfer the judge to a safe place.” After three months, the government has failed to implement these measures.
“Given the context of Afiuni’s detention, and the dramatic erosion of judicial independence in Venezuela under Chavez, it is very difficult to expect that she will get a fair trial,” Vivanco said.
Human Rights Watch documented Venezuela’s lack of judicial independence in 2008 in “A Decade Under Chávez,” a report that describes how Chávez and his supporters in the National Assembly carried out a political takeover of the Supreme Court in 2004. This takeover effectively neutralized the judiciary as an independent branch of government. Since then, the court has repeatedly failed to fulfill its role as a check on arbitrary state action and a guardian of fundamental rights.

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