By Patrick Vanderpool
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America
CARACAS, Venezuela – According to a prominent human rights organization, President Hugo Chavez is using Venezuela’s judiciary to persecute his political opponents and to crack down on media critics and curtail the power of labor unions. In its annual report, Human Rights Watch condemned what it called “the Venezuelan government’s domination of the judiciary and its weakening of democratic checks and balances” last year.
The human rights group also posed warnings that Chavez’s control over judges and prosecutors has led to “a precarious human rights situation.” According to the New York based organization, “judges may face reprisals if they rule against government interests,” citing Judge Maria Afiuni’s arrest shortly after she ordered the release of a high-profile banker who opposed Chavez’s government.
Chavez was critical of Afiuni’s decision to free Eligio Cedeno, who was accused of corruption and fled to Florida soon after his release in late 2009. Chavez demanded that Afiuni, who is facing charges of abuse of authority and “favoring evasion of justice,” receive the maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.
Chavez adamantly denies having undue influence over the courts, insisting that the legal system remains autonomous and free from political influence. Other members of the president’s ruling party echoed Chavez’ sentiments about the Venezuelan judiciary, taking issue with the allegations in Human Rights Watch’s report.
According to Silvio Mora, a pro-Chavez lawmaker, “[e]very single one of the branches of government are independent: the judicial branch, the legislative branch and the executive branch.” In the same interview, Mora also claimed that “[e]veryone enjoys total freedom here.”
The accusations about Venezuela’s judiciary come a year after Chavez tightened control over that branch of the government. Many have criticized the move, comparing Chavez to Perez Jimenez, former military dictator of Venezuela, saying that both attempted to silence the news media, used the judiciary to jail adversaries and violated basic freedoms such as protest rights.
For more information, please see:
Associated Press – Rights Group: Chavez Using Judiciary Against Foes – 25 January 2011
Associated Press – Chavez Supporters, Foes Stage Anniversary Rallies – 23 January 2011
NPR – Venezuela’s Chavez Tightens Grip on Judiciary – 27 April 2010