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UN experts: President Chávez deals new blow to independence of judges and lawyers in Venezuela

GENEVA (16 December 2009) – Three independent UN human rights experts* said Wednesday that they are deeply disturbed about a controversial arrest of a judge in Venezuela, which they described as “a blow by President Hugo Chávez to the independence of judges and lawyers in the country.”

Judge María Lourdes Afiuni was promptly arrested by intelligence police officers after having ordered the conditional release pending trial of Mr. Eligio Cedeño, according to available information. Mr. Cedeño’s detention was declared arbitrary by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on 1 September 2009, 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.

“We are particularly troubled about allegations that President Hugo Chávez attacked both Mr. Cedeño and Judge Afiuni, calling them ‘bandidos’ (bandits) and accusing Judge Afiuni of corruption,” stressed the UN experts.

In an appearance before Government officials, which was broadcast on national television and radio, the Venezuelan President further demanded that Judge Afiuni be sentenced to a 30-year prison term, even if new legislation was required to achieve that result.

President Chávez openly instructed the Attorney General and the President of the Supreme Court to punish Judge Afiuni as severely as possible, to prevent similar actions by other judges. He also suggested that Mr. Cedeño’s defense attorneys had engaged in criminal conduct in requesting his release. Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz is reported to have given interviews to the press slandering the Judge. Two court bailiffs accompanying Mr. Cedeño out of the court room, and one of his lawyers were also briefly arrested, but soon released.

“Reprisals for exercising their constitutionally guaranteed functions and creating a climate of fear among the judiciary and lawyers’ profession serve no purpose except to undermine the rule of law and obstruct justice,” stated the experts. “The immediate and unconditional release of Judge Afiuni is imperative,” they added.

Judge Afiuni is said to have been charged with corruption, accessory to an escape, criminal conspiracy and abuse of power. She has been denied a public defender. It is also feared that Mr. Cedeño’s Venezuelan defence lawyers are under imminent threat of arrest. Earlier in November, another Caracas judge was reportedly removed from the court of appeals and demoted after determining that Mr. Cedeño’s pretrial detention had exceeded statutory limits.

(*) The Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Mr. El Hadji Malick Sow; the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Ms. Gabriela Carina Knaul de Albuquerque e Silva; and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Ms. Margaret Sekaggya.