The case of a Venezuelan judge imprisoned almost three years ago has recently surged back into the headlines, drawing scrutiny from human rights advocates in and outside of Venezuela. Judge María Lourdes Afiuni was arrested in December 2009, after issuing a ruling that displeased President Hugo Chávez. At the time, the president went on national television to affirm that in earlier times, she would have been put before a firing squad. Soon after, she was arrested. Afiuni says that she was raped while in prison and later underwent an abortion behind bars after becoming pregnant. Controversy surrounding the case has outraged human rights activists who consider her jailing proof of the lack of judicial independence in Venezuela.
President Chávez sent his secret intelligence police to arrest Afiuni after she granted bail to businessman Eligio Cedeño, who had ties to the Venezuelan opposition and was accused of evading currency controls. Cedeño’s detention was declared arbitrary by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which decried Chávez for jailing an officer of the government without a fair trial. Despite the UN’s demands, Afiuni was held for more than a year in an overcrowded women’s prison near Caracas. She was incarcerated only cells away from more than 20 inmates whom the judge had sentenced for murder, drug smuggling and other serious charges. “I’m in this hell because I had the temerity to do my job as a judge in a way that didn’t please Chávez,” Afiuni told the New York Times from her prison cell.
Now that Afiuni has made the abuses she suffered known, the outrage has begun to grow. And now, nearly three years after her arrest, her trial has finally begun. Afiuni refused to enter the courtroom, however, claiming her rights had been violated and the case mishandled. However, due to a recent change in Venezuela’s penal code, the government has claimed the right to try her in absentia, setting a new precedent in Venezuela’s legal history. The particular change in the penal code was approved in June under the auspices of the controversial Enabling Act, which essentially gives President Chávez the right to rule Venezuela by edict.
Afiuni, who suffers from cancer, is now under strict house arrest in Caracas. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly called for Afiuni’s release, as has the American linguist Noam Chomsky, a commentator who often supports Chávez’s socialist goals. In an open letter to the Venezuelan president, Chomsky exhorted Chávez to “correct an injustice” by releasing Afiuni. Chomsky noted with outrage that the sick Afiuni “experienced grave abuses that led to a severe deterioration of her physical and psychological condition.” Unfortunately, these appeals have all been ignored by the Chávez administration.
This three year old case is another example of the government’s efforts to tighten its control over institutions like the judiciary. Earlier this year, former Venezuelan Supreme Court judge Eladio Aponte Aponte made startling claims about the Chávez administration’s control over the court system. Aponte has said Chávez and other government officials contacted judges with instructions on sensitive cases, while vice president Elías Jaua held weekly meetings with members of the judiciary. In fact, the World Justice Project released on Wednesday its 2012 Rule of Law Index Report, ranking Venezuela last in criminal justice. According to the report, “the government institutions are not transparent, and the criminal justice system is ineffective and subject to political influence.”
Examples like Afiuni’s are unfortunately common in Venezuela, but this one in particular has caught the eye of international activists, who will remain attentive as this unprecedented case proceeds. Afiuni’s next court hearing is scheduled for December 19.