Chavez gone, but his jailed opponents languish

CARACAS Thu Mar 14, 2013 1:40pm EDT

Venezuelan Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni is seen in prison outside Caracas in the state of Miranda April 4, 2010 in this photo released by her lawyer April 8, 2010. REUTERS/Handout

Venezuelan Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni is seen in prison outside Caracas in the state of Miranda April 4, 2010 in this photo released by her lawyer April 8, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Handout

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's Hugo Chavez may be dead, but his jailed opponents are still wrestling with his ghost and their relatives see little hope of freedom if the divisive socialist's protégé wins the presidential election to succeed him.

A judge, a local police chief and a former army general who was once Chavez's defense minister are among a host of opponents who fell foul of the socialist leader hailed as a champion by millions of poor Venezuelans but reviled by foes as a despot.

The opposition has been pushing for an amnesty for more than 100 of Chavez's enemies. Around two dozen are behind bars in Venezuela, while dozens more fled into exile.

A lawyer for the family of one of the high-profile prisoners said relatives saw "no light at the end of the tunnel" if acting President Nicolas Maduro wins the April 14 election. Before his death from cancer last week, Chavez named Maduro, a fierce loyalist, as his chosen successor.

The case of Venezuelan judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, who enraged Chavez by defying him in a corruption case, sent shockwaves that are still reverberating in the United Nations.

Jailed in 2009 and now living under house arrest, 49-year-old Afiuni said in a book late last year that she was raped in prison and then had an abortion. She became sick and her uterus was removed.

"After that horrific episode in prison, she will never be the same woman," her brother Nelson Afiuni told Reuters at his hardware store in a poor neighborhood in southwest Caracas. "She has lost her happiness."

"It was very tough for us when we heard about it. We were in shock," he added. "How is it possible that a whole family's life could so change, become so miserable, at the whim of a president?"

He won't read the account of the rape, worried that he will snap. He and his brother both chip in to support Afiuni financially. They never go on holiday with their families, to ensure they are nearby if she needs anything.

Now confined to her home, Afiuni's only lifeline to the outside world is her Twitter account. She is barred from talking to the media.

"That's enough already! You ruined my life, my career and my health. What more do you want?" she tweeted on Tuesday.

Prisons Minister Iris Varela called the rape allegation an "odious hoax" intended to whip up hysteria over her case, and government officials declined to comment for this story.

Afiuni was jailed after releasing a businessman charged with subverting currency controls. Prosecutors accused her of taking a bribe, but she argued Eligio Cedeno had been held in prison while awaiting trial for longer than generally permitted under Venezuelan law.

A furious Chavez then called her a bandit on national television and said she should be given a 30-year prison sentence.

The United Nations has called on Venezuela's government to free her.

"It is unacceptable that Venezuelan authorities are not acting with due diligence to investigate the acts perpetrated against Judge Afiuni in an immediate and impartial manner, and severely punish those responsible," Rashida Manjoo, the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women, said last month.

RIGHTS VIOLATIONS

As families pushed for an amnesty, it was Maduro as Chavez's vice president who was tasked with evaluating the situation of jailed opponents.

But amid the sharp decline in Chavez's health and seething mistrust between the government and its rivals, the issue faded into the background.

"It's no longer about the law, and has transformed into something political," said Omar Mora Tosta, a lawyer for Raul Baduel, a former army general who became defense minister under Chavez and had helped restore him to power after a brief coup in 2002.

Baduel broke with Chavez in 2007 and began campaigning against him. He was then arrested on corruption charges in 2009 and is serving an eight-year sentence for illicit enrichment while serving as minister.

Baduel says the accusations against him were politically motivated due to his opposition to a 2007 constitutional reform proposed by Chavez.

"The family is suffering," Mora Tosta said, citing stress and the economic impact of his imprisonment. "Just like all the political prisoners, they are subjected to abuses and arbitrary acts of the regime."

Another Chavez rival, local police chief Ivan Simonovis, is serving a 30-year jail term, accused of involvement in a shootout during street protests that led to the brief 2002 coup.

Supporters say Simonovis suffers osteoporosis, is held in a tiny cell without daylight, is only allowed out for one hour a week and needs an urgent transfer to a hospital.

Chavez himself denied there were any political prisoners in Venezuela. "There are some politicians in prison, but that's another matter," Chavez told lawmakers in a speech in 2011.

"The dynamic that President Chavez drove for 14 years has taken on a life of its own," said Ligia Bolivar, director of the center for human rights at Universidad Catolica Andres Bello, referring to a judiciary crammed with Chavez loyalists.

"He created a monster, and it has come alive," she added. "I'm not very hopeful that will change. I think Maduro has sent out signals that it won't."

(Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray and Vicki Allen)

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