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Diane Francis

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Chavez Confiscates Justice in Venezuela

Posted: 12/21/09 02:49 PM ET

American oil, businessmen, Canadian mining companies, and now the rule of law are being attacked by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.

Anyone thinking of going there or doing business, think again.

Here's the latest injustice. On December 16, United Nations judicial experts condemned Venezuela's arrest of a judge as a "blow by President Hugo Chavez to the independence of judges and lawyers in the country".

This condemnation follows the release by Judge María Lourdes Afiuni of banker Eligio Cedeño. According to human rights activist and Cedeño lawyer, Bob Amsterdam of Toronto, Chavez went "crazy".

Judge Afiuni has been jailed and denied a lawyer, and Cedeño and his defense team are being sought by police.

The banker, accused of embezzlement, has become a cause celebre among human rights activists and attempts to have his case aired through due process have been fought along the way by the regime, wrote Amsterdam. Here is the time line of events:

  • In 2007, the charges were brought against Cedeño without sufficient evidence. This was corroborated recently by to an affidavit by the lead prosecutor Yoneiba Parra. She said under oath that there was prosecutorial misconduct and other irregularities in Cedeño's case. She was fired by the Attorney General and fled to Colombia where she now has political asylum.

  • In February 2007, Judge Yuri López issued a ruling that tangentially favored Cedeño. That judge was also immediately relieved of her responsibilities and was subsequently granted political asylum in the United States.

  • Last month, after an appellate panel in Caracas determined that Cedeño's pretrial detention had exceeded the maximum legal duration, the appellate judge who wrote the opinion was demoted. The appellate court's decision was subsequently suspended by the Supreme Court.


Now, the release of Cedeño by Judge Afiuni.


Tragedy unfolding

"Given the disproportionate response of the Chavez regime to Cedeño's conditional release - which was an independent judicial decision rendered in compliance with Venezuelan law - it is clear that Judge Afiuni is in grave danger," wrote Amsterdam.

"They are talking about a 30-year sentence for the judge and threatening to burn her alive," said Amsterdam in an email over the weekend.

Statements by the UN's human rights judges in Geneva, and Venezuela's own bar association, have condemned the jailing.

"The key points she [the judge] made were that: (1) when she sought Eligio's detention, there was insufficient evidence to incarcerate him, or to indict him; and (2) she sought his detention under pressure from the Attorney General, who indicated that the source was Chavez himself."

On September 1, 2009, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared Cedeño's detention arbitrary, citing violations of the right to fair trial. His counsel team introduced the UN experts' opinion at the hearing before Judge Afiuni on 10 December 2009, following which he was conditionally released after almost three years in detention without trial.


The UN's memo this weekend:

"We are particularly troubled about allegations that President Hugo Chavez attacked both Mr. Cedeño and Judge Afiuni, calling them 'bandidos' (bandits) and accusing Judge Afiuni of corruption," stressed the UN experts.