GENEVA (Reuters) - Three U.N. human rights experts on Wednesday accused President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela of creating a climate of fear among his country’s legal profession with the arrest last week of a woman judge.
The three, all from developing countries, criticized the detention of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, who was seized by police on Dec. 10, a day after she ordered the conditional release of long-imprisoned banker Eligio Cedeno.
“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,” they said in a statement.
Opposition leaders often accuse the populist president of trying to reduce constitutional freedoms. The former paratrooper argues that opponents work secretly with the United States to try and overthrow his elected government.
According to the statement, issued by the United Nations in Geneva, Judge Afiuni based her decision to free Cedeno on a finding by the United Nations’ working group on arbitrary detention in September that his right to a free trial was being violated.
She had been now charged with corruption, being an accessory to escape, criminal conspiracy and abuse of power, and denied a public defender, they said.
Venezuela’s Attorney General Luisa Ortega said on Wednesday that the judge was charged with four crimes.
“We proceeded according to the elements we had,” she said.
Cedeno was arrested three years ago and is accused of using funds from his bank in a foreign exchange fraud. The bank he previously owned, Banco Canarias, was sold to a businessman with government links who was jailed in November after the bank collapsed.
Afiuni’s decision was quickly overturned but the whereabouts of Cedeno is currently unknown.
The three experts were El Hadji Malick Sow of Senegal, a specialist on arbitrary detention; Gabriela Carina Knaul de Albuquerque e Silva of Brazil, who reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council on the independence of judges; and Margaret Sekaggya of Uganda. who reports to the council on human rights defenders.
Knaul de Albuquerque also criticized Colombia on Wednesday for a climate of threats against magistrates, judges, victims, witnesses and lawyers. Colombia is Venezuela’s neighbor.
Last week Chavez used a television show to denounce both Afiuni and Cedeno as “bandits” and demand that the judge be given a 30-year jail sentence for corruption. He also told the attorney general to punish her “as severely as possible.”
The president also suggested that Cedeno’s defense lawyers engaged in criminal conduct by requesting his release. Two court officials present at the hearing were briefly detained.
“The immediate and unconditional release of Judge Afiuni is imperative,” the U.N experts added.
Reporting by Robert Evans; Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in Caracas; Editing by Jonathan Lynn, Jon Hemming and Eric Walsh