Hugo Chávez’s Attempted Murder of a Judge

La-juez-María-Lourdes-Afiuni.preview.jpgIn almost any other country in the world, it would be a scandalous outrage and national obsession.  In Venezuela, where the speed of absurdist political theater zips along a such a fast pace – from war with Colombia to an attack on golf to presidential advice on the proper duration of a shower – such an event simply passes by relatively undistinguished from the daily grind of creeping dictatorship.

The outrageous event I am referring to is that of the imprisoned Control Court Judge María Lourdes Afiuni, who over the weekend suffered not the first, but the second attempt made on her life.  According to reports, on Sunday, Jan. 3, Judge Afiuni was attacked by a large group of inmates, armed with chuzos (shanks), and wearing the standard prison battle dress of headbands and legbands made of bright tape symbolizing “war” and “mutiny.”  Before she was rescued by guards and moved to the staff sick bay, her attackers poured gasoline into her holding area and shouted threats that they would “burn her alive.”

These were the events strongly denounced in a recent statement from the NGO Justicia y Proceso Venezuela (JUYPRO), signed by the lawyers Theresly Malavé Wadsker and José Luís Rodríguez, which places direct blame on the Chávez administration and the Public Ministry, both of whom have direct knowledge of the specific risks to Judge Afiuni’s life in this facility.

It’s no mystery why this innocent judge’s life is being threatened: without investigation, rights to defense, due process, trial, or mostimportantly, conviction, María Lourdes Afiuni was deposited intoVenezuela’s infamously violent maximum security facility for women, theInstituto Nacional de Orientación Femenina (INOF).  This is ahardcore prison which is strictly under law meant for convicted felons,and even if we put aside the fact that the charges against Afiuni arebogus, she has a right to pre-trial detention in a safe court holdingfacility.  Furthermore, members of the judiciary are obviously notsupposed to be placed into the general population; there are dozensof violent inmates in the INOF which Afiuni sentenced herself as a judge.

Chávez also personally made clear his instructions to have this judge unlawfully imprisoned, and encouraged his followers to harm her and kill her.  During two separate nationally televised public addresses (see video below), Chávez declared that “in the times of the Liberator Simon Bolivar, Judge María Lourdes Afiuni would’ve been executed by firing squad,” and that “I demand the maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

So much for the Venezuelan president pretending that the presumption of innocence or the independence of the judiciary still exists … Here, in full view of the public, he slanders innocent citizens who have been convicted of no crimes as “bandits,” demands the politically controlled courts to imprison them without trials, and suggests that violence should be perpetrated against them.  Over the weekend in the INOF, a few violent inmates simply attempted to fulfill Chávez’s instructions.

The ultimate irony is that Afiuni has become a victim of this leviathan government for having attempted to uphold the law and simply exercise the supposedly independent powers of her office.  Her offense, in the eyes of the Chavistas, was that she ordered a conditional release of my client Eligio Cedeño, who had been imprisoned illegally without trial for almost three years (the maximum term for pre-trial detention is two years).  She issued her decision during a proceeding on Dec. 15 in the presence of two representatives of the Public Ministry, citing an opinion published by an independent United Nations Working Group which had declared Cedeño’s detention as arbitrary.  Cedeño was later forced to flee to the United States when a nationwide dead-or-alive manhunt was initiated by Chávez.

There is a very ugly history of the Venezuelan government attacking and harrassing members of the judiciary who refuse to cooperate with their politicized justice.  The state has changed prosecutors more than 17 times on the Cedeño case before finding one young enough and pliable enough to carry out instructions.  Judge Yuri López, who did nothing more than admit just one complaint from Cedeño regarding the false testimony of a state witness, was harassed, fired, and suffered the attempted kidnapping of her son (see her video testimony here).  Another judge entirely unrelated to this case, Alicia Torres, was suspended from her job when she refused to sign an order to restrict the travel rights of an opposition television broadcaster.

It is not necessary that you like or support Cedeño to see that the state is clearly behaving illegally toward him and Afiuni.  I am not concerned if you disagree with our argument that he was a political prisoner and is now being politically persecuted (though after a personal attack from the president on television it is hard to argue otherwise).  Whether or not you support or reject the policies of the Chávez government should have nothing to do with the inhuman treatment of this judge.

In the name of simple human decency, universal value for life, peace and non-violence, I implore you all to reach out to pressure the government of President Hugo Chávez to transfer Judge Afiuni to a safe location where she can exercise her legal rights defense and be released.  If the state has a real case against her, let them prove it in court before the world’s eyes.  No one, absolutely no one, should face the prospect of being burned alive in a prison without a conviction or sentence, and everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

It is only fair that we ask President Hugo Chávez to observe and uphold these minimal principles.