CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan authorities on Friday freed a judge who was arrested in 2009 after then-President Hugo Chavez objected to one of her rulings. Her case became a cause celebre for the opposition and international human rights groups.
Dozens of supporters met Maria Lourdes Afiuni outside the apartment building where she has been under house arrest with cries of "freedom," as she walked to the street without handcuffs or police escort for the first time in three-and-a-half years.
Amid a few tears, she thanked the well-wishers for coming out, but declined to comment further since she's still under a gag order not to discuss her case publicly. Instead the judge, her daughter and her lawyers went to a church to pray.
Thelma Fernandez, an attorney for the 50-year-old magistrate widely considered Venezuela's most high-profile political prisoner, said a Caracas judge had released Afiuni from house arrest so she can seek treatment for health problems.
The ruling does not erase the charges of corruption, abuse of authority and aiding an inmate's escape for which Chavez called for to be jailed.
There was no immediate comment from the government
Afiuni had crossed Chavez by freeing a banker accused of violating currency controls while he awaited trial. The banker fled the country and sought asylum in the United States.
Chavez, who died of cancer on March 5, was livid after her order.
"A judge who frees a criminal is much, much, much more serious than the criminal himself," he said in a televised speech. "This judge should get the maximum penalty, and whoever does this – 30 years in prison! ... That judge has to pay for what she has done."
Critics said the Afiuni case exemplified how Chavez had come to control the judiciary after increasing the size of courts and stocking them with friendly magistrates.
Although Venezuela's government says it holds no political prisoners, Afiuni was considered such by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and noted U.S. intellectual Noam Chomsky, an early champion of Chavez for his anti-poverty programs.
After more than a year in a women's prison, Afiuni was transferred to house arrest at her apartment in the capital in 2011.
In November, a court began trying her in absentia. She refused to attend, saying her rights were being violated and she didn't recognize the court's right to judge her.
Jose Amalio Graterol, another of Afiuni's lawyers, said she will continue to boycott the proceedings, but comply with an order to check in with court officials every 15 days as a condition of her release. She is also barred from leaving the country.
Also last year, writer Francisco Olivares published a book saying Afiuni told him she was raped in prison in 2010, became pregnant and lost the fetus.
Venezuela's head of prisons rejected that allegation as a "vile lie."
Chavez's anointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, narrowly defeated opposition leader Henrique Capriles in an April special election to pick the new president.
Capriles congratulated the judge later Friday and asked, via Twitter, "Who will return (lost) time to Judge Afiuni, compensate her for all she has suffered?"