A new report states the Venezuelan justice system does not contain adequate systemic safeguards to guarantee judicial independence and cites the trial of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni as emblematic of the situation in general. Describing her trial as being characterised by multiple violations of due process and other human rights, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) points to an urgent need for reform of the Venezuelan judiciary.
The 28-page IBAHRI trial observation report, entitled The Execution of Justice: The criminal trial of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni, details a number of specific irregularities in the trial of Judge Afiuni, including:
her being arrested without a warrant and the late President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez Frías appearing on national television immediately afterwards calling for her imprisonment;
her being subjected to grievous physical abuse in the female maximum security prison Instituto Nacional de Orientación Femenina between December 2009 and February 2011, amounting to violations of her right to life, liberty, personal integrity and adequate conditions of detention;
the failure of the public prosecutor to produce sufficient evidence at any stage of the trial in order to substantiate the allegations against her; and
the frequent procedural delays resulting in a criminal process that has been drawn out over four years, violating Judge Afiuni’s right to a fair trial within a reasonable time.
IBAHRI Co-Chair Sternford Moyo commented, ‘The IBAHRI remains deeply concerned by the serious damage the criminal trial of Judge Afiuni has caused to the independence of the Venezuelan judiciary and the legal profession as a whole by creating an atmosphere of fear. On multiple occasions the IBAHRI heard that “no one wants to be the next Afiuni”.’ He added,‘The independence of judges and lawyers is an essential component of any democratic society and a fundamental pillar of the rule of law. It is clear that the Venezuelan justice system is in urgent need of reform if public confidence in the fair administration of justice is to be restored. We urge the Venezuelan government to heed the calls of national and international organisations to take swift and meaningful steps to make these principles and obligations a reality.’
The IBAHRI sent international observers to attend Afiuni trial hearings between November 2012 and October 2013. The trial was annulledon the 23 October because of it being ‘interrupted’ by the prosecution failing to turn up at an evidentiary hearing. A retrial date has yet to be scheduled.
The Execution of Justice: The criminal trial of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni is the IBAHRI’s sixth report on Venezuela. With each one the separation between the executive and the judiciary is observed to be diminishing. Of particular concern to the IBAHRI is:
the system of provisional judges under which judges are subject to discretionary dismissal without appeal;
the lack of implementation of the judicial code of ethics;
inadequate parameters regarding the appointment and removal process for judges; and
frequent executive interference.
IBAHRI Co-Chair Baroness Helena Kennedy QC commented, ‘The Afiuni trial is one of the most important political cases in Venezuela and the IBAHRI finds it troubling that Judge Afiuni was arrested without the issuance of a warrant following her decision to release a “political prisoner” in accordance with the Venezuelan Penal Code and a United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention decision. The only conclusion a person can reach is that the arrest was arbitrary and politically motivated.’ She added, ‘Four years later, having endured death threats, abuse and serious health complications, there is still no final decision in sight. Judge Afiuni remains in a Kafkaesque criminal process.’
The Execution of Justice: The criminal trial of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni, published in Spanish with a translated English executive summary, will be launched today, Tuesday 29 April 2014, at the plenary working group meeting at the annual meeting of the Federation of Latin American Judges’ Associations (Federación Latinoamericana de Magistrados – FLAM) in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Notes to the Editor
Details of Judge Afiuni’s case:
Judge Afiuni, a titular judge, was charged with ‘corruption’ and ‘assistance to escape’ following the conditional release of Eligio Cedeño in 2009.
She granted bail to Mr Cedeño after two years of pre-trial detention, applying provisions of the Venezuelan penal code and taking into account a decision of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that considered this individual’s detention unlawful.
Following her arrest Judge Afiuni was arbitrarily detained in prison, where she developed serious health complications as the result of physical abuse.
In February 2011 she was transferred to house arrest where she was kept under heavy armed guard until her conditional release on 14 June 2013, granted by Judge Marilda Rios of the 17th Caracas District Tribunal.
Judge Afiuni is required to present herself to the court every 15 days and is banned from leaving the country, speaking to the media, and using social media networks.
The International Bar Association (IBA), established in 1947, is the world’s leading organisation of international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Through its global membership of individual lawyers, law firms, bar associations and law societies it influences the development of international law reform and shapes the future of the legal profession throughout the world.
The IBA’s administrative office is in London. Regional offices are located in: São Paulo, Brazil; Seoul, South Korea; and Washington DC, US, while the International Bar Association’s International Criminal Court Programme (IBA ICC) is managed from an office in The Hague.
The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) works to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.
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