Yesterday around noon, when we heard reports that the political prisoner Eligio Cedeño, a client whom I represent, had finally been released on parole from his unlawful detention after almost three full years of imprisonment without conviction of any crime, our spirits were strong. This would be the first Christmas that Eligio would be able to spend with his family since 2007.
Then within hours, the political prosecutors began taking their revenge, placing under arrest Judge María Lourdes Afiuni, a person who did nothing more than perform her job, administer justice as a member of a supposedly independent judiciary, and declare Cedeño’s continued incarceration as illegal. It was this fair judicial decision, based upon various opinions from independent international bodies which had also found Cedeño’s detention to be arbitrary, which released him – not an “escape” as reported by some media, not a “conspiracy” as alleged by the political prosecutors, but a normal, regular legal decision which any true rule of law court would have made years ago.
Nevertheless, Venezuela’s Keystone Kops, surprised as I was that there was actually just one fair decision in the Cedeño case, are shaking down every structure in Caracas in a massive manhunt, as though mild-mannered banker were holding nuclear secrets. If one cannot see the revanchist, personal nature motivating these events, I don’t know how to convince you of it.
Has justice become illegal in Venezuela? Have the chavistas become soused to the manipulation of the courts, that when a judge showsindependence, and knows to do the right thing, that this is the crime?Unfortunately it seems that there is a “presumption of irregularity” inVenezuela.
Todaythings got worse, as the government decided that Judge Afiuniwouldn’t be the last hostage to be taken and threatened. We havereports now that lawyer close to Cedeño, José RafaelParra Saluzzo, has also been arrested and is being held at the militarypolice headquarters (DIM) – and I can honestly say that we deeply fear for his safety given therecord of this regime. We all remember the outrageous stories ofdisappearing lawyers during the Danilo Anderson case who would laterturn up dead, shot while “resisting arrest.” The Chávez governmentmust be made aware that the world knows they are holding JoséRafael and others in their custody.
As if the situation couldn’t bear more absurdity, both Attorney GeneralLuisa Ortega Díaz gave interviews to the press slandering Judge Afiuni,while on a cadena to the nation on television President Hugo Chávezfurther personally attacked both Cedeño and the judge, calling them”banditos.” Both of these members of the government helped to display ahigh level of personal involvement in the case, underscoring the pointwe have repeatedly made: Cedeño is a victim of political persecution.
We should not be surprised that Afiuni is being persecuted for doingher job. In these kinds of political cases, there is a long history ofthe state attacking various officers of the court who do not fulfillthe orders of the executive. In 2007, another judge, Yuri López, whohad merely admitted one complaint filed by Cedeño, was threatened,fired, and chased into exile after an attempted kidnapping of one ofher children. Earlier this year, one of the lead prosecutors testifiedabout the numerous irregularities in the case against Cedeño, inresponse to a federal subpoena in Miami. That prosecutor was laterthreatened with arrest in Venezuela and was forced to flee the country.In November, after an appellate panel in Caracas determined thatCedeño’s pretrial detention had gone on too long, the judge who issuedthe opinion was removed from the court of appeals and demoted.
Afiuni took a principled stand and issued a decision that in hercapacity as a judge she saw as consistent with the law. She did notcommit any illegal act. But in Venezuela, the price of performing justice is high.
So for now, Chávez, Ortega Díaz, and others will spread all the liesthey possibly can to make it seem as though the release of Cedeño weresomehow illegal or that it was an “escape” or a “conspiracy.” But theproblem is that they can’t prove their case – the detention of CedeñoWAS illegal (there is a maximum of two years without conviction), hedid not commit the crimes he is accused of (this is why the first trialwas adjourned the night before the verdict acquitting him in 2007), and theposition of the defense is backed up by important opinions and statements published by diverse international bodies, not least theInternational Commission of Jurists.
This is not criminal justice, ladies and gentlemen, this is a situation of justice becoming a crime.