On December 11, Justice Maria Afiuni was pulled down from the bench and thrown into custody by intelligence police.
She had had the temerity to release a person on bail, a person who the Chavez government had charged with fraud, but had never provided proof, after 34 months in pretrial custody.
Under the Venezuelan Constitution, 24 months is the maximum for pretrial custody, and the lawyers for the prisoner argued for his release.
The prosecutor, despite being advised and ordered to appear, failed to do so, indicating that he was "too busy."
In the absence of any showing why the detention was justified, she released the accused on bail.
She was arrested within the hour, and sent to prison. Just as bad, before her bail hearing, President Chavez called Justice Afiuni a "bandit" on national television, and called for 30 years in custody in her case. He also said that "in Bolivarian times" she would have been summarily executed.
Also on television, the lead prosecutor stated that there was no evidence of any bribe being paid, nor of any contact between the judge and the accused outside of the court. The crime, she explained, was having contact IN court,in the absence of the prosecutor. According to this theory, by the simple expedient of refusing to enter the courtroom, the Prosecution could keep someone in custody indefinitely.
No doubt as a result, bail was denied her despite the presumption that a person of previous good character is entitled to liberty pending trial.
The Caracas Bar Association pointed out that no judge will be willing to release anyone, if they themselves then face arrest. They also pointed out the obvious, that if the prosecution disagrees with a judicial decision, they must appeal it, not arrest the judge. The path being followed by the Chavez government destroys the independence of the judiciary, they said.
Justice Afiuni returns to court February 18th. In theory, she could be released. But it would take a brave judge, or prosecutor, to rub egg in the face of President Chavez by releasing her pending trial.
UPDATE: On February 18th, and again through the first half of March, Judge Afiuni remains in custody. No evidence against her has yet been produced.
Her preliminary hearing date was March 6th. On that day, a court would have jurisdiction to release her on bail, if so persuaded. However, the assigned judge dodged the task, sending out word that he was "indisposed". Because, according to Venezuelan law a preliminary hearing "must take place within sixty days of a charge being laid", a second preliminary date was scheduled for March 18th. Once again, no hearing was held, and no proof presented. This time, it was because the formal charging document, the "causa", was not in the court file for some inexplicable reason.
On April 19, a further preliminary date had been set. This time, Justice Afiuni was not brought to court because "there was no transport available". So, once again, no evidence was presented against her. That makes four times she has been denied her trial rights. The next court date is May 3rd. On April 25th, the Washington Post had a story about the case: