Venezuelan judges "living in fear"
CARACAS (Reuters) - The Venezuelan Supreme Court judge most openly critical of President Hugo Chavez's government says it wields "total" control of the judiciary through intimidation and manipulation of appointments.
"The judiciary is terrified. And in a nation where judges are afraid, the citizens cannot sleep peacefully," Blanca Marmol de Leon, one of 32 Supreme Court judges, told Reuters at her office in the tribunal headquarters in downtown Caracas.
Marmol has been vocal of late over fears that an upcoming eight or more new court vacancies will be rushed through by the outgoing Chavez-dominated parliament before a new body with greater opposition presence takes over in January.
The socialist government currently dominates the National Assembly, but in a September election it lost the two-thirds majority it needs to make appointments to the Supreme Court. The opposition won 40 percent of seats, meaning those appointments would have to be negotiated.
"With a different Assembly, maybe not all the judges would come from the same political current. That is why they are in a rush to make the appointments now," said Marmol, the most outspoken of the Supreme Court judges who frequently gives interviews to opposition-leaning local media.
Critics say Chavez, who has been in power since 1999, is crushing democracy and rights in the South American oil-producer through an autocratic style, the persecution of political foes and increasing control of the judiciary.
But the 56-year-old former soldier rejects that, pointing to the dozen or so elections he has won during the last decade as evidence of his democratic credentials. He also says criticism of his handling of the judiciary is hypocritical considering its past, when bribery and extortion were rife.
As evidence of intimidation, Marmol cited the case of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, jailed after she freed a businessman who the government accuses of corruption.
Afiuni was arrested at the end of last year, and Chavez's comment that she should be jailed for 30 years caused outrage among the opposition and rights groups.
Marmol said that and other cases mean judges live in fear of being sacked or jailed themselves if they made rulings that offended the government.
"Judges now have to choose between the detainee or themselves. It's a parody," she said. "The independence of judges is lost."
Asked how much control the government had over the judicial system through politically friendly judges, Marmol said: "Total." Only two other Supreme Court judges occasionally voted against the will of the government like her, she said.
Marmol said that under Chavez there had been a "cleansing" of the entire judiciary and "twice they tried to fire me."
"The requirements to be a Supreme Court judge have been lowered, and the reason for that is political, so 'one of ours' can be elected," she said.
(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Eric Beech)
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