CARACAS, Venezuela — The trial of an arrested judge who claims she was raped while in prison began Wednesday in absentia. Maria Lourdes Afiuni has repeatedly refused to enter the courtroom, believing that she will not be granted a fair hearing.
The case has angered human rights groups who say her imprisonment demonstrates a lack of judicial independence in Venezuela.
During her defense, one of Afiuni’s lawyers, Thelma Fernandez, described her client as “the most emblematic political prisoner in the country.”
Wednesday's hearing was the latest chapter in a case that Human Rights Watch has cited as a "disturbing" example of President Hugo Chavez tightening his grip on power.
The decision to try Afiuni in absentia follows a new criminal code approved this year by Chavez, who was re-elected to a third term in October.
“It’s a sad fact when a president, usurping the National Assembly … creates a criminal code for the sole purpose of judging political prisoners,” said Jose Amalio Graterol, Afiuni’s principal lawyer, as he waited outside the courtroom on Wednesday.
Afiuni hugged her lawyers and brother outside the courtroom though was unable, by law, to speak to the press. She hopes to make her voice heard through Twitter.
“They’re afraid of what she might say,” said Nelson Afiuni, her brother, as he waited for the trial to begin.
The 49-year-old judge faces charges of corruption and abuse of authority. She was imprisoned in December 2009 after allowing the release of a businessman charged with subverting currency controls, an extremely common practice here.
Afiuni said that Eligio Cedeno had been held in prison too long while awaiting trial and so ordered his release.
The move angered Chavez, who on national television demanded Afiuni be given a 30-year prison sentence. However, she has failed to cooperate and has been held in pretrial detention for almost three years.
Just days ago, it was revealed that Afiuni was raped while in prison, according to an account she gave to local journalist Francisco Olivares as well as Graterol.
Venezuela’s Prisons Minister Iris Varela hit back, saying, “All the stories she has written, everything she has told her lawyer, it’s nothing but lies.”
“This is just part of the complete lack of judicial independence in Venezuela,” said Pedro Pizano, strategy and development associate at the Human Rights Foundation in New York. “This rape allegation will put more fear into those judges that may be considering issuing independent decisions.”
The trial will continue on Dec. 19.