Decrying what they termed “a blow by President Hugo Chávez to the independence of judges and lawyers in the country,” three independent United Nations human rights experts today called for the immediate release of a Venezuelan judge arrested after ordering the conditional release of a prisoner held for almost three years without trial.
Judge María Lourdes Afiuni was arrested by intelligence police officers after ordering the conditional release pending trial of Eligio Cedeño, whose detention was declared arbitrary in September by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which cited violations of the right to fair trial. His counsel introduced the experts’ opinion before Judge Afiuni earlier this month.
“We are particularly troubled about allegations that President Hugo Chávez attacked both Mr. Cedeño and Judge Afiuni, calling them ‘bandidos’ [bandits] and accusing Judge Afiuni of corruption,” the UN experts said in a statement issued in Geneva, where they report to the UN Council on Human Rights.
In an appearance before Government officials, broadcast on national television and radio, Mr. Chávez demanded that Judge Afiuni be sentenced to a 30-year prison term, even if new legislation was required to achieve that result, and he instructed the Attorney General and the President of the Supreme Court to punish her as severely as possible to prevent similar actions by other judges.
He also suggested that Mr. Cedeño’s defence attorneys had engaged in criminal conduct in requesting his release. Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz is reported to have given interviews to the press slandering the Judge. Two court bailiffs accompanying Mr. Cedeño out of the court room, and one of his lawyers were also briefly arrested, but soon released.
“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,” the experts said. “The immediate and unconditional release of Judge Afiuni is imperative.”
Judge Afiuni is said to have been charged with corruption, accessory to an escape, criminal conspiracy and abuse of power. She has been denied a public defender. It is also feared that Mr. Cedeño’s Venezuelan defence lawyers are under imminent threat of arrest. In November, another judge was reportedly removed from the court of appeals and demoted after determining that Mr. Cedeño’s pre-trial detention had exceeded statutory limits.
The three experts are: Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention El Hadji Malick Sow; Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers Gabriela Carina Knaul de Albuquerque e Silva; and Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Margaret Sekaggya.