Thursday, September 10, 2015

What could be the consequences for the judge who frees Leopoldo Lopez?

The cautionary and ongoing  odyssey of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni
Judge María Lourdes Afiuni jailed on December 10, 2009
What could be the consequences to the presiding judge, Judge Susana Barrientos, in the Leopoldo Lopez case if she exercised judicial independence and followed the rule of law? Judge Barrientos already has an answer and it is found in the cautionary tale of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni.In a 2009 interview with The Guardian Judge Afiuni spoke plainly:  "There is no judicial independence. I'm here as the president's prisoner. I'm an example to other judges of what happens if you step out of line."

The case of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni provides a chilling answer for members of the judiciary in general. Judge Afiuni ruled that a near three year pretrial detention ran afoul of the two year limit prescribed in Venezuelan law and authorized the conditional liberty of Eligio Cedeño, a banker accused of corruption on December 10, 2009.  The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions had already declared Cedeño's detention arbitrary. The judge was detained that same day, ironically on human rights day, and jailed. 

Prisoner of conscience: Judge María Lourdes Afiuni.
 The next day President Hugo Chávez called the Judge a "bandit"who should be imprisoned for thirty years. Days later Chávez reaffirmed that Judge Afiuni was "correctly jailed" and advocated that she be sentenced to 35 years in prison. She was charged by prosecutors in January of 2010 with "corruption, abuse of authority, and “favoring evasion of justice.” Prosecutors provided no credible evidence to substantiate the charges." She was held for over a year in prison during which "Judge Afiuni was raped and suffered physical and psychological violence, including death threats from other inmates." She was then transferred to house arrest. In June of 2013, Judge Afiuni was released on bail, while her trial, which began in 2012, continued. In 2013 her house arrest was lifted as she began a battle against cancer. Chavez died on March 5, 2013 but the trial against the judge began to suffer delays, which apparently violate Venezuelan law continuing into 2014 and now 2015.

When Venezuela's Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz in Geneva denied the existence of any complaint for sexual abuse and torture involving Judge Afiuni on June 29, 2015 this  led Afiuni to break her silence on June 30, 2015. She explained "how the INOF guards and officials of the Ministry of Justice sexually abused her and destroyed her vagina, anus and bladder."

Judge Susana Barrientos knows that deciding based on the rule of law could open her up to the threat of a 35 year prison sentence, arbitrary imprisonment, repeated and brutal rapes, and a protracted six year legal struggle to defend her good name in a system in which judicial independence has been compromised.

Regardless of the outcome today the safety of both Leopoldo Lopez and
Judge Susana Barrientos (if she decides in favor of Leopoldo) depends on international scrutiny, solidarity and protection. The international community must remain vigilant.

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