Saturday, June 9, 2012

Defense Lawyer for Judge Afiuni under Arrest

Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, a judge in Caracas, Venezuela has been held in detention in Caracas for the past thirty months, accused of such crimes as "spiritual corruption" and "assist a prisoner's escape." The latter charge arose when, while sitting as a judge, she granted bail pending trial for a political prioner who had himself spent thirty months in jail, without trial. While her decision was clearly legal, it led to President Chavez denouncing her as a "bandit" on national tv, and demanding thirty years in jail for her. Calls for an end to her sufferings have spanned the political universe, from Noam Chomsky on the left to Conservative members of the European Parliament. She has been represented in court hearings by Jose A. Graterol, a well-respected and experienced criminal defense lawyer. On June 2, 2012, Afiuni's lawyer, Graterol, was himself arrested after giving a television interview critical of the Venezuelan justice system. This unprecedented arrest was immediately criticized in the strongest terms by the Venezuelan Federation of Lawyers, the International Commission of Jurists, and Human Rights Watch, which stated that the arrest appeared to be an act of retaliation for Graterol's aggressive defense of Afiuni, both within the Venezuelan court system, and internationally. The Venezuelan Justice system has recently suffered the defection of two members of the Supreme Court, both appointed by the present Chavez government, and both of whom have made grave accusations which, if true, would entirely undermine the integrity of the judicial system. For example, the Chief Justice of the Criminal Division of the Supreme Court, Justice Aponte Aponte, revealed that each week's "judicial" decisions were actually made by the Executive, not the judiciary, in earler weekly meetings presided over by the Vice President. As well, Aponte said judges were routinely threatened with violence to insure "politically correct" rulings, both in political cases as well as in cases involving drug trafficking. In these latter cases, he said, he would be instructed by calls from the President and his staff as to which accused should be acquitted, and which ones to be found guilty and sentenced. A second Supreme Court Judge independently confirmed most of these points. When these allegations became public, the Attorney General of Venezuela announced they did not merit any investigation whatsoever. It is this system of "justice" which Jose Graterol is now accused of obstructing. It is this system of justice which Judge Afiuni refused to accomodate, a decision which caused her to be pulled from the bench by secret police and kept in custody two and one half years to date, without any trial. The proceedings against Graterol (as with Afiuni) thus far have been rife with lawlessness. Deadlines which insure that pretrial incarceration be limited, have not been met. The Criminal Code infraction with which he is charged requires proof of threats, fraud, or violence, but no specific threat, fraud, or violence has even been alleged. However, a gag order has been imposed which would limit press access, and which prevents any travel. Given that Afiuni's case has been taken up in the UN General Assembly and other international bodies, the travel restriction is particularly onerous, even if Graterol can obtain bail. Finally, it appears that the charges against Graterol will limit Justice Afiuni's right to be represented by the lawyer of her choice. There have been previous attempts to have Graterol disqualified, and to impose a state employee "duty counsel" to represent her. These lawyers, often inexperienced, are far from independent and can lose their jobs whenever the government wishes. Even if Jose Graterol is given bail pending his trial, it is likely that Judge Maria Afiuni's trial will either occur with no lawyer representing her, or will not occur for many years, due to the removal of Graterol. For this reason, the InterAmerican Federation of Lawyers called the arrest of Graterol "frightening" "arbitrary", and "a clear departure from the rule of law guaranteed by the Constitution and the norms of international law."