Statement: Former Political Prisoner Cedeño Takes on Misinformation of Chávez

chavez122609.jpgMy client Eligio Cedeño, who up until Dec. 10 was one of Venezuela’s most well known political prisoners, released his first statement on Christmas Day afternoon since being legally admitted and processed into his new residence in the United States.  In the statement Cedeño explains why he was forced to flee Venezuela, and the circumstances which led to his conditional release and subsequent jailing of the judge who issued the order.

Eligio’s statement is an exceptional declaration of principles, a counter-attack against all the lies and indignity he and the other political prisoners have suffered at the hands of the Hugo Chávez kleptocracy, and a call for rationalism and basic respect for rule of law.

As a side note, I have to say that I have been very dismayed by theinaccurate perceptions that some people are gathering from the media -but whether that is to blame on lazy reporters too reliant on Google orthe naivety of the audience is up for debate (bloggers are doing a way better jobin capturing what is happening).  I couldn’t believe I was stillgetting calls from people who thought he was imprisoned, who had boughtinto the narrative from Miraflores, hook, line, and sinker. 

For one thing, people are incredibly taking the Chávez government atits word – such as when the Venezuelan government announced the”capture” of Cedeño by U.S. officials, as though he were doingsomething illegal.  In fact he entered the country just like everyoneelse, and voluntarily applied for his residency processing just likeeveryone else.  He was never “arrested” like Chávez claimed on TV,knowing full well that within one day some reporter would finally takethe time to look into the matter and get the truth to contradict him. I suppose that “Noticiero Hugo” is the first place to go for breakingnews from the Department of Homeland Security.  And this is a countrywhere a judge gets arrested for agreeing with an independent UN opinionon arbitrary detention!!

Other news reports have begun to slowly wrap Eligio’s saga into thestory of the other imprisoned bankers (such as the billionaire Ricardo Fernandez Barrueco),the exprorpriations, and the announcement that Hugo intends to found anew state-owned mega-bank – which I am sure will be really transparent.  The two stories have nothing to do with each other, and even Cedeño’s assets were plundered by some of these Boligarchs.  Cedeño was unlawfully thrown into prison in Feb. 2007 before any of this ever happened, and furthermore one must keep in mind that his extremely modest upbringing left him in a social class that cast far outside the “old boys club” of Venezuela’s financial community – those guys who are going down now grew up with a silver spoon in their mouths and much, much closer ties to the Chavez government.  That may not sound very important to a foreigner, but it is very culturally significant.

Anyways,enough complaining from me.  He goes the first words from Eligio, whois spending his first Christmas with family in almost three years.  Ourtranslation might get a few adjustments in the coming hours, so staytuned.



December 25, 2009

As is now well known, this past December10th, the 31st Control Court of Caracas, presided by Judge MaríaLourdes Afiuni, granted me a conditional release, after having spentthe past two years and ten months in “pretrial” detention without atrial. I would note that Venezuelan criminal law places a two-yearmaximum on pretrial detention, except in exceptional circumstanceswhich were not present in my case. Unfortunately, the Venezuelangovernment hopes to create the impression that Judge Afiuni’sindependent decision was somehow the product of corruption or a shadydeal. Sadly, compliance with the law has become suspect in Venezuela,and those who dare to follow the law are subject to a moral and public”firing squad” from the Chávez regime. My first thoughts are for thebrave judge, who was assigned to my case only recently, and whom I metfor the first time when I appeared before her in her courtroom onDecember 10, but who today is paying for her judicial independence withjail time. Her treatment reveals to the world the true face ofVenezuela’s justice system, and underscores my feelings of solidaritywith the dozens of political prisoners who today are in our prisons forthinking differently and expressing it publicly.

President Hugo Chávez and the Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz,among others, have invigorated my cause by lying in public,demonstrating beyond any doubt that I am (was) indeed a politicalprisoner. They conveniently ignore the fact that in February of 2007 Ivoluntarily turned myself in to the authorities in order to face thecharges they had made against me, and that I should have been tried infreedom. They also ignore the fact that my trial was improperlysuspended in 2008, when a jury was poised to acquit me after a trialwhich lasted more than two months. Being kept prisoner for almost threeyears without trial has been recognized nationally and internationallyas humanly unacceptable, in violation of the Venezuelan law the sacredhuman right to liberty, without even delving into the trumped-upcharges of embezzlement of which I am accused.

These are the certain facts which preceded my conditional release.Judge Afiuni recognized that the refusal of prosecutors to appear at mypreliminary hearing for the second consecutive time demonstrated thegovernment’s apparent lack of interest and seeming negligence on thepart of the prosecutors, who typically fail to attend hearings inpolitical cases, as a delay tactic. The decision was made in thepresence of two representatives from the Attorney General’s Office. Thecontinual refusal of the prosecutors to appear in court violated myright to a fair trial. The truth is that no preliminary hearing wasconvened on December 10, contrary to the characterizations of PresidentChávez and his close collaborators; rather, the preliminary hearing wasagain postponed. This, however, did not prevent my defense counsel fromrenewing a prior written request that the judge review my detentionstatus. The law permitted me to make this request, based on changes inthe condition of my detention, as often as I wished.

On this occasion, we had renewed my request to be tried in freedom,and we presented an opinion released in September 2009 by the WorkingGroup on Arbitrary Detention, part of the High Commission on HumanRights of the United Nations, which recognized the arbitrary nature ofmy detention and requested that I be released pending trial. In lightof the opinion of the U.N. Working Group, and given the unexcusedabsence of the prosecutors and the lack of objection by the othergovernment representatives who were present, Control Judge Afiunigranted my conditional release, with the requirement that I report tothe Court every 15 days and refrain from international travel.

Notwithstanding the government’s intentional disinformation on thisissue, Judge Afiuni’s decision was made in the course of judicialproceedings, in the presence of the Attorney General’s Office ofVenezuela, based on a recommendation by the U.N. Working Group onArbitrary Detention. Her decision was based on our laws, together withinternational treaties to which Venezuela is a signatory and which isit required to observe.

The subsequent abuses against Judge Afiuni, the courtroom personneland my attorneys cause me profound concern, and are inconceivable in acountry governed by justice and the rule of law, where judicialdecisions are reviewed on the basis of established rules andprocedures, not on the basis of the personal whim of those who feelpowerful and who manipulate justice for their own convenience and forpolitical motives.

President Chávez is lying when he says that the lawyers and courtofficers had prepared signed release papers in advance. The AttorneyGeneral Luisa Ortega Díaz is lying when she characterizes the behaviorof the bailiffs as “irregular” and claims that they took me out througha secret exit. The bailiffs took me out the same way I came into thecourthouse. The bailiffs took me from hearings chamber to a courtroom,where at that moment the same prosecutors who claimed “they couldn’tattend” the suspended hearing were there in the hallway. I waited inthat courtroom until I was informed that I could leave, and it is onlythen that the bailiffs escorted me to the ground floor and the frontdoor of the courthouse, where I left on my own means. The governmentplays with words to imply that there were no release papers, eventhough those would only have been needed if I had been in my jail celland not in open court when the judge granted my conditional release.Release papers were not necessary given that I wasn’t in the jail, butrather in court, where the judicial authorities signed and issued anorder, as commanded by law, allowing me to face trial in freedom underwell known conditions.

Here is how justice works in Venezuela: my constitutional rightswere violated; the laws of the Republic were subverted; judicialindependence was abused; my human rights and those of the otherspresent in the courtroom were violated; the President of the Republicacted scandalously the following day, appearing in the national mediato accuse, try and sentence the judge, the bailiffs and even myattorneys, without any investigation or due process. Justice inVenezuela is subrogated to the whims of a president who appointshimself judge and demands the maximum sentence against Judge Afiuni forhaving followed the law. The punishment demanded by President Chávez isnot typical in our legal framework, and it is not a crime for a judgeto render an independent and legal decision. The President of theRepublic is not entitled to judge or sentence any member of thejudiciary, which is constitutionally independent and autonomous. Hisconduct once again shows the precariousness of Venezuela’s institutionsand is a cause for international alarm.

These reactions made it clear that I was truly a political prisonerof the Chávez regime, and worse yet, a personal prisoner of PresidentChávez for reasons that still escape me. I had no choice but to leavemy own country – particularly given Chávez’s order to capture me, deador alive, broadcast in the media – which is to say that the Presidentplaced a bounty on my head.

I have been a political prisoner. My imprisonment was clearlydiscriminatory. They have violated my rights to be presumed innocent,to due process, to a fair and speedy trial and the fair application ofthe law. Very sadly, Judge Afiuni finds herself in the same conditionsI lived this Christmas and holiday season: arbitrarily detained, inviolation of her legal and human rights as guaranteed underinternational law and the international treaties to which Venezuela isa signatory.

The happiness of returning to freedom and reuniting with my familywill only be complete when the people who have been harassed,persecuted, and imprisoned for observing the law are vindicated andrecognized as innocent, and when there is no longer any politicalprisoner in Venezuela because true democracy has been recovered.

Eligio Cedeño
25 Diciembre de 2009