Monday, January 17, 2011

No judicial independence in Venezuela

María Lourdes Afiuni is a Venezuelan judge. Back in 2009, she granted bail to a banker accused of evading currency controls. It was an ordinary legal decision, and a straight application of the law - he had been in jail for three years without trial, which exceeded the 2-year statutory limit, so he was bailed. Unfortunately, Hugo Chavez didn't like it:

Chávez, who had taken a close interest in the case, was furious. He went on TV the day after the release and said Afiuni was a "bandit" who took a bribe. "This judge should get the maximum penalty … 30 years in prison! That judge has to pay for what she has done."

He told the head of the supreme court that the case should be treated with "firmness". Afiuni was charged with corruption and abuse of power. In May prosecutors said they had found no evidence of illicit payments but accused the judge of "spiritual corruption". There is no trial date.

Afiuni has now been in jail for a year for making a lawful decision the Venezuelan President didn't like. And assuming she ever gets a trial, the presiding judge will be under no illusions that they could suffer the same fate if they do not find her guilty. And so the law is perverted from what is on the statute book to whatever Chavez decrees it to be, and guilt and innocence are decided not by the evidence, but by the president's whim.