Transitions

A Judge Is Freed — Or Is She?

A few days ago, Venezuela’s most famous political prisoner was released from house arrest. But as with many things in revolutionary Venezuela, the freedom of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni has not been a completely happy affair. The conditions upon which her release was granted set a troublesome precedent for the future. Judge Afiuni is not ...

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images
LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

A few days ago, Venezuela’s most famous political prisoner was released from house arrest. But as with many things in revolutionary Venezuela, the freedom of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni has not been a completely happy affair. The conditions upon which her release was granted set a troublesome precedent for the future.

Judge Afiuni is not like other political prisoners because she was never politically active. Her involvement in Venezuelan politics began when, in late 2009, the case of defendant Eligio Cedeño landed in her courtroom. Her decision in that case enraged Hugo Chávez, and sealed her fate for the next four years.

In the mid-2000s, Cedeño was well known operator in Caracas’ financial circles, a man with one foot in Wall Street and another in the revolution’s halls of power. However, in 2007 his luck changed. He was charged with illegally profiting from Venezuela’s byzantine currency exchange controls. His crime, the government alleged, was helping another company to ask for subsidized dollars for fake imports, only to turn around and sell the currency in the black market at a profit — a felony that many in Venezuela commit but few are tried for.

The real story behind Cedeño’s incarceration remains a mystery. Some allege he crossed the wrong people inside the government. Others claim Cedeño was the lover of one of Chavez’s daughters and two-timed her. Regardless, his imprisonment was plagued with irregularities and, as a consequence, Cedeño remained in jail awaiting trial for years. This prompted the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions to call for his immediate release.

In late 2009, the Cedeño case landed in Judge Afiuni’s courtroom. After taking into account that the prosecution had failed to provide evidence of their allegations, and after considering the arguments put forth by the U.N. working group, the judge decided to free Cedeño, effective immediately. Cedeño quickly left the courtroom, caught the first plane out of Venezuela, and successfully applied for political asylum in the United States.

It would prove to be a verdict that changed Judge Afiuni’s life. It would also change the course of Venezuela’s judicial system.

Within minutes of the verdict, Hugo Chávez was on TV blasting the ruling. He accused Afiuni of being a corrupt "bandit" and claimed that she was paid to free Cedeño. He called for Afiuni and the court clerks to be jailed immediately and sentenced for 30 years — inconveniently forgetting the fact that Venezuelan law does not give the president any power to detain people. "Simón Bolívar," he crowed at Afiuni, "would have had you shot!"

Chávez’s virulent reaction is hard to understand given how little we know about why Cedeño was being made a scape-goat. At any rate, the Comandante’s wishes quickly became a reality. Afiuni was immediately handcuffed and escorted from her courthouse, despite the fact that there was not a single shred of evidence of foul play. She was placed in the same jail where she had sent many of her defendants.

She languished in Venezuela’s judicial system for four years. Her trial never got off the ground, and the prosecutors did not present any credible evidence. The judge became a cause célèbre for many human rights organizations (see here, here, and here). Even chavista sympathizers such as the MIT Linguist Noam Chomsky publicly called for Chávez to release her.

In the meantime, the judge did not keep quiet. A book on her ordeal was published a few months ago. In it, she revealed that she was raped by prison guards and forced into having an abortion. After she was diagnosed with cancer, the authorities moved her into house arrest.

During her time behind bars the judge also used Twitter. One of her most memorable tweets expressed her belief that she would never be freed as long as Hugo Chávez was alive. It proved to be prescient.

A few days ago, Judge Afiuni was paroled from house arrest. Even though she has never been tried or convicted for any offense, and in spite of the prosecutor’s lack of any evidence against her, she will have to appear in court every fifteen days. She is also banned from traveling abroad or speaking to the media. Curiously, the order also forbids her from using social media such as Twitter or Facebook.

The "release" of Judge Afiuni sets a dangerous precedent.

It is obviously a positive step for her and her relatives. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government scores some public relations points. But the fact that a judge can impose such harsh measures on the freedom of movement and speech on a Venezuelan citizen is troubling. If Judge Afiuni can be barred from social media in exchange for her freedom, what exactly is stopping the government from demanding other people do the same? Can we honestly say Venezuelans’ basic rights are safe? How does the judicial system get away with this?

Sadly, this is another consequence of Afiuni’s imprisonment. Her horrific ordeal served as a loud warning to the rest of the judges with an appetite for independence: toe the government line or else.

The judge who granted Afiuni her "freedom" under such bizarre circumstances obviously learned the lesson the same judge taught her through her incarceration: don’t cross the wrong people, and just do what you’re told.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and co-author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.

 Twitter: @juannagel

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