CARACAS (Reuters) - The jailing of a judge in Venezuela threatens the independence of her colleagues and the rule of law in the Latin American OPEC member, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni was arrested by police on December 10, a day after she ordered the conditional release of a long-imprisoned banker accused of fraud.
Venezuelan opposition leaders often accuse populist President Hugo Chavez of cracking down on constitutional freedoms, while he argues his rivals are working secretly with Washington to try to topple his elected government.
Chavez has publicly denounced Afiuni and the banker, Eligio Cedeno, as "bandits," and has called for the judge to be given a 30-year jail sentence for corruption.
New York-based HRW said the judge was right to free Cedeno because he had been in pretrial detention for nearly three years, despite a two-year limit prescribed by Venezuelan law.
"Throwing a judge in prison for doing her job and issuing a decision that upholds fundamental rights protected under both Venezuelan and international law is not something you'd expect in a functioning democracy," Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at the global rights watchdog, said in a statement.
"Once again the Chavez government has demonstrated its fundamental disregard for the principle of judicial independence."
Late last year, three U.N. human rights experts criticized Chavez over Afiuni's arrest, accusing him of creating a climate of fear among his country's legal profession.
Afiuni is held in a women's prison that she shares with convicts, including some she sentenced to jail. She has been insulted and threatened by inmates, HRW said. Cedeno fled the country and requested political asylum in the United States.
The Inter American Commission on Human Rights criticized "the absence of an effective separation and independence of the public branches of power in Venezuela" in a report issued in February.
The commission had earlier called on the authorities in Caracas on January 11 to move Afiuni to a "safe place," but HRW said that had not happened.
"Given the context of Afiuni's detention, and the dramatic erosion of judicial independence in Venezuela under Chavez, it is very difficult to expect that she will get a fair trial," Vivanco added.
On April 1, rights group Amnesty International urged Chavez's government to stop targeting its critics, citing a string of what it said were politically motivated arrests.