CARACAS, Venezuela -- Once a month, Venezuela's best-known judge is handcuffed, led out of her apartment and escorted by troops to a courthouse to stand trial.
But Maria Lourdes Afiuni refuses to enter the courtroom. It is her way of saying she won't get a fair hearing.
The combative and self-assured judge is being tried on corruption charges that have made her a cause celebre to government opponents who accuse President Hugo Chavez of wielding undue influence over Venezuela's judicial system.
Afiuni infuriated Chavez when she freed a banker from the prison where he was awaiting trial on charges of flouting the country's currency exchange controls. A day after her arrest on Dec. 10, 2009, Chavez said on national TV that he had discussed Afiuni's action with the president of the Supreme Court. "This judge," he fumed, "should get the maximum sentence, and whoever does this – 30 years in prison!"
To Chavez's critics, it was something of a smoking gun for their argument that he is using the judiciary to harass his opponents. Chavez insists everything he has done during his nearly 13 years as president is legal and that judges and prosecutors must remain fully independent.
Now under house arrest and confined to her apartment, 48-year-old Afiuni is under a gag order so she airs her protests daily on Twitter to her more than 82,000 followers. She calls herself a "judge kidnapped by order of Chavez."
In her apartment, she listens in silence, at times smiling, at times frowning in consternation, as her brother, Nelson Afiuni, makes the case for setting her free. Explaining her refusal to enter the courtroom, he says: "She doesn't want to submit to a conviction that they've already written."
Venezuela isn't the only Latin American country whose leaders are accused of interfering in the legal system, and Venezuela's system was vulnerable to powerful interests long before Chavez took office.
But during the past decade, human rights activists say, its courts have become less independent, with prosecutors and judges increasingly acting in concert with the government to target opponents or others who, knowingly or not, cross those in power.
Chavez's rival in the 2006 presidential race, Manuel Rosales, fled into exile, saying prosecutors were falsely accusing him of corruption. Guillermo Zuloaga, the majority owner of anti-Chavez television channel Globovision, fled to the U.S. last year to escape criminal charges that he called politically motivated.
Chavez vehemently denies the charges of interference, while human rights activists say Afiuni's case stands out because she is being prosecuted for a routine ruling and because Chavez intervened so openly.
Amnesty International is demanding her release. So is American activist Noam Chomsky, whom Chavez admires.
Afiuni was arrested minutes after she released banker Eligio Cedeno, who had been in jail awaiting trial on charges of violating currency controls. He was accused of helping a company obtain $27 million in dollars through the government for computer equipment that never reached Venezuela.
Afiuni's brother noted that Venezuelans in custody should not by law be held longer than two years without trial, and Cedeno had been in jail for nearly three years. Also, he said, the judge felt the evidence was too thin to justify continued imprisonment, and the prosecutors had for the second time failed to show up for hearings.
Afiuni's lawyer, Jose Amalio Graterol, said the judge made a sound, lawful decision in releasing Cedeno on condition he stay in Venezuela and regularly report to a court while awaiting trial. Graterol said the judge also took into account an opinion by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that Cedeno's detention was arbitrary.
Chavez called it corruption. "I demand firmness against that judge," he said. "A judge who frees a criminal is much, much, much more serious than the criminal himself."
He didn't mention any particular grudge against Cedeno, though the wealthy banker has since said he gave money to the opposition and was jailed for political reasons.
Cedeno fled to the U.S. within days, and was eventually granted asylum. Afiuni is charged with corruption, abuse of authority and aiding an inmate's escape. Her lawyer says the charges are baseless.
Chavez's critics say the judiciary is increasingly stacked in the government's favor. Blanca Rosa Marmol de Leon, a Supreme Court magistrate and its only voice strongly critical of the justice system, expresses concern that the overwhelming majority of the nation's judges have been replaced during Chavez's presidency. Their replacements "are afraid" to go against the authorities because of what has become known as "the Afiuni effect," she says.
In a telephone interview, Marmol de Leon blamed Chavez for the judge's arrest, saying: "Judge Afiuni is detained due to a decision by the president." Afiuni's lawyer, Graterol, wants the judge in her case disqualified, saying that he has shown an open pro-Chavez bias.
Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz has said there were irregularities in Cedeno's release and that Afiuni went against a Supreme Court decision granting prosecutors additional time in the case. Prosecutors did not respond to requests for an interview.
After her arrest, Afiuni spent nearly 14 months in jail. There, her brother says, she endured threats by other women inmates and was narrowly saved by National Guard troops just as prisoners were about to douse her cell with gasoline to set it ablaze.
In February, she was granted house arrest due to health problems. Supporters welcomed her home, painting "Judge Afiuni Honesty and Courage" on a wall outside her apartment complex.
She lives with her 19-year-old daughter and parents, confined indoors by soldiers seated outside her front door round the clock.