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Venezuela grants conditional release of Chávez-era judge

Freedom for Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni was a cause célèbre among dissidents and human rights groups critical of the Chávez regime. Venezuela conditionally released her after three years in detention.

Jailed Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, often referred to as “Hugo Chávez’s political prisoner,” was freed on Friday after spending more than three years in detention. Following petitions from international bodies and human rights groups, the court decision immediately ignited social media networks, with many celebrating the release as a victory for human rights and Venezuela‘s political opposition.

Freedom for Ms. Afiuni was a cause célèbre among dissidents and human rights groups critical of the Chávez government. The former president singled her out on state television and denounced her as a “bandit” after she granted bail for a banker who had been held in detention for nearly three years without trial.

“From the humanitarian point of view, this is a huge step,” says Leonardo Vivas, Latin America program coordinator at the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights in Cambridge. But “from the legal point of view, not much has changed.”

While her release is considered a major breakthrough by some, many remain skeptical about the Venezuelan government’s commitment to improving its human rights record since charges still stand against Afiuni. More likely, observers say, the move could help to improve Nicolás Maduro’s international standing at a time when the South American nation is faced with a faltering economy and is embroiled in controversy over allegations that President Maduro’s campaign engaged in voter fraud.

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“It relieves a huge amount of international pressure on Maduro,” Mr. Vivas says.

‘Much, much, much more serious’

Banker Eligio Cedeño was charged with violating Venezuela’s strict currency controls, and Afiuni’s 2009 decision to free him on bail enraged the Chávez administration. “A judge who frees a criminal is much, much, much more serious than the criminal himself,” Mr. Chávez said. “This judge should get the maximum penalty, and whoever does this … 30 years in prison!”

Despite appeals from the international community including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and US-based leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky, stating that her decision did not violate any laws, Chávez wouldn’t budge.

Afiuni said Mr. Cedeño’s time in detention exceeded the maximum time allowed in custody without a trial, claiming she based her decision on United Nations recommendations.

Political prisoners

Analysts are reluctant to say Afiuni’s release signals a softening of Maduro’s hard-line political stance, which has in many ways followed in the tracks of Chávez. Robert Bottome, Director of the Veneconomy Publications Group, points out that other political dissidents remain behind bars.

According to the Venezuelan daily El Nacional, 21 Venezuelans are currently in prison for political reasons, nine of whom date back to Chávez. The other 12 were jailed following the violence that broke out after Maduro’s contested election victory in April.

Last year, in a book she published about her detention, Afiuni alleged that she was raped in prison and became ill after having an abortion. The latest move by the courts granted her a conditional reprieve from house arrest (which followed her earlier imprisonment in a woman’s prison) to seek medical treatment. She is still barred from talking to the press or using social media, restrictions her lawyer says will be lifted if and when she’s acquitted.

‘She’s in jail’

“I don’t believe [Afiuni’s release] would have happened under Chávez,” says Jose Vicente Haro, a constitutional law professor at Catholic University Andres Bello in Caracas.

He says the court decision was directed toward foreign governments. Facing problems of legitimacy, he says “Maduro is still crafting his image. The release helps to show him as being pragmatic, and bolsters his claim of legitimacy.”

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“The [Afiuni] question was on the tip of everyone’s tongues,” says Mr. Bottome. “Now [the international community] can no longer say she’s in jail.”