On December 9, 2009 Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni was arrested by intelligence officers after ordering the conditional release pending trial of Eligio Cedeño. Cedeño’s detention was declared arbitrary in September 2009 by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which cited violations of his right to a fair trial. Judge Afiuni’s decision was, at least partly, based on the findings of the Working Group.
Judge Afiuni released Cedeño because he had been in pre-trial detention for nearly three years, which was in violation of a two-year limit prescribed by Venezuelan law. As a result, Judge Afiuni was charged with corruption, being an accessory to escape, criminal conspiracy and abuse of power. In addition to these charges, she has been denied a public defender.
In an appearance before Government officials, broadcast on national television and radio, the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, demanded that Judge Afiuni be sentenced to a 30-year prison term, even if new legislation was required to achieve that result. He also suggested that he had instructed the Attorney General and the President of the Supreme Court to punish her as severely as possible to prevent similar actions by other judges. It has been reported that the arrest of Judge Afiuni was politically motivated as the release of Cedeño outraged President Chávez.
The jailing of a tenured judge has illuminated the increasingly tight control President Chávez exerts over the judiciary, a situation condemned by legal watchdog groups and constitutional experts across the Americas. There have been other high profile arrests suggesting a systemic pattern of President Chávez’s use of security and intelligence apparatuses to quash changes to his control of political institutions.
Criticism of Judge Afiuni’s imprisonment from fellow judges in Venezuela has been muted, although judicial supporters of President Chavez have demonstrated their allegiance to President Chávez and expressed support for the government's efforts to create a system that blurs the separation of powers. There has however been vocal criticism outside of Venezuela. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also found and commented on the dismissal of Venezuelan judges who have issued rulings that antagonize the government. Moreover, legal experts in Venezuela estimate that about half of Venezuelan judges are provisional, which they say leave them more susceptible to pressure.
The Law Society intervened in this case in May 2010 through a letter of intervention and a public statement.
Recent reports indicate that on December 13, 2011, a judge granted the request of the Public Prosecutor to extend the measure of house arrest against Judge Afiuni by two years. The Law Society intervened through the following letter of intervention.
Letter of Intervention