Detention of Maria Lourdes Afiuni
Judge María Lourdes Afiuni Mora is a Venezuelan who was 46 years old as of April 2010 and had served as a judge for eight years; she was head of the 31st Control Court of Caracas. In 2009 she was arrested on charges of corruption after ordering the conditional release on bail of businessman Eligio Cedeño, who then fled the country; she remained in pre-trial detention until June 14, 2013. Human rights groups accused the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez of creating a climate of fear that threatens the independence of the judiciary.
Judge Afiuni was arrested by intelligence officers after ordering the conditional release on December 10 of businessman Eligio Cedeño pending his trial for evading currency controls. According to the United Nations, she was "charged with corruption, accessory to an escape, criminal conspiracy and abuse of power", and was "denied a public defender". A "pro-Chavez congressman" stated that a bribe was paid to Afiuni; she denies the charge.
Afiuni said she was following United Nations' guidance when she released Cedeño, who had been detained longer than the time allowed under Venezuelan law. Cedeño had been held in pre-trial detention for three years, although Venezuelan law prescribes a two-year maximum. The pretrial detention process had been repeatedly delayed because prosecutors failed to appear at hearings. According to Venezuela's attorney general, Luisa Ortega Diaz, the release on bail was determined at a hearing without prosecutors present. Cedeño states that "my trial was improperly suspended in 2008, when a jury was poised to acquit me after a trial which lasted more than two months", and that Afiuni's decision was rendered "in the presence of two representatives from the Attorney General's Office". He also says, "In light of the opinion of the U.N. Working Group, and given the unexcused absence of the prosecutors and the lack of objection by the other government representatives who were present, Control Judge Afiuni granted my conditional release ..."
María Lourdes Afiuni was incarcerated on 17 December 2009 at the National Institute of Feminine Orientation (INOF), a women's prison on the outskirts of Caracas; her cell is close to convicts whom she sentenced to jail, and she reports she has been threatened. Responding to concerns that Lourdes Afiuni's life was in danger, Venezuelan authorities reported on 29 December that she was being held separately from the general prison population.
In January 2010, the prosecution filed official charges against Afiuni for alleged irregularities in the release of Eligio Cedeño.
In November 2012, Afiuni denounced an alleged physical abuse during her detention. However, according to prisoners of National Institute of Feminine Orientation (INOF), Afiuni had not been raped, and she even enjoyed privileges during her detention. According to her attorney she was raped while in prison, became pregnant, and had an abortion.
President Hugo Chávez called the judge a "bandit", applauded her arrest, and said she should be put away in prison for 30 years. Chavez stated, "A judge who frees a criminal is much, much, much more serious than the criminal himself. This judge should get the maximum penalty... 30 years in prison. That judge has to pay for what she has done." He also suggested that she had been bribed, and that Simon Bolivar would have had her shot. The Caracas Bar Association asserts that the judge's decision to free Cedeño was legal, while the government says it was improper to release him without prosecutors present at the hearing.
Several international groups have expressed concern about the arrest of Judge Afiuni. In December 2009, three independent human rights experts of the United Nations' (UN) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for Judge Afiuni's immediate and unconditional release; they said, "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". In January 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a protective measure in favor of Maria Lourdes Afiuni. Other groups speaking out against the government's arrest of Judge Afiuni include the Episcopal Conference of Venezuela, Human Rights Watch, the U.S. Department of State, and the Law Society of England and Wales. A director of Human Rights Watch said, "Once again the Chávez government has demonstrated its fundamental disregard for the principle of judicial independence."The Human Rights Foundation has circulated a petition calling for Afiuni’s immediate release. “Afuini’s is an open and shut case that exposes the despotic nature of the Chávez regime like few others,” said HRF president Thor Halvorssen. “Judge Afiuni has withstood years of vitriol by a subservient supreme court and scores of judges that fear something similar will happen to them if they dare to let her go.”
On 8 July 2010, the European Parliament stated that it "Condemns the public statements made by the President of the Republic of Venezuela, insulting and denigrating the judge, demanding a maximum sentence and requesting a modification of the law to enable a more severe penalty to be imposed; considers that these statements are aggravating the circumstances of her detention and constitute an attack on the independence of the judiciary by the President of a nation, who should be its first guarantor."
In July 2011, Noam Chomsky—who according to The Observer "Chávez has long considered ... one of his best friends in the west"—published an open letter asking the government of Venezuela for "a humanitarian act that ends the judge's detention". Chomsky stated, "I am convinced that she must be set free, not only due to her physical and psychological health conditions, but in conformance with the human dignity the Bolivarian revolution presents as a goal. In times of worldwide cries for freedom, the detention of María Lourdes Afiuni stands out as a glaring exception that should be remedied quickly, for the sake of justice and human rights generally and for affirming an honourable role for Venezuela in these struggles."
Afiuni was released on June 14, 2013 but remained on trial.
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