Venezuela proposes ending detention of judge who says she was raped

CARACAS Fri Jun 7, 2013 1:36pm 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 file photo. 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 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Handout

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's attorney general proposed on Friday to end the house arrest of a female judge who was detained on corruption charges in 2009 and alleged that she was raped in prison.

Maria Lourdes Afiuni's detention for the past three years and alleged mistreatment behind bars has made her a cause celebre for foes of the late President Hugo Chavez.

Afiuni was jailed in 2009 after angering the socialist leader by freeing a businessman charged with dodging currency controls. In a book last year, she said she was raped in prison and then fell ill after having an abortion.

The government has rejected that allegation as a hoax by the 49-year-old judge aimed gaining popular sympathy. In 2011, it moved her to house arrest, and on Friday Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz said the government wanted to relax some restrictions on health grounds.

In a statement, the public prosecutor's office said it had formally asked a Caracas court to rule that Afiuni could now present herself before the authorities every 15 days, "so that she may attend to her health problems."

It said Afiuni was forbidden to leave Venezuela and a ban on her talking directly to the media would remain in force. Under house arrest Afiuni has kept up a steady stream of criticism of the government from her Twitter account, something which does not violate the terms of her detention.

"The lawyers are waiting (to hear from the court)," she tweeted on Friday, thanking supporters for their messages. "MY PARENTS ARE SUPER-HAPPY," she added in response to one query.

The likely loosening of Afiuni's detention conditions comes two days after Venezuela deported a U.S. filmmaker who was accused of spying for Washington and plotting election violence.

That was announced just hours before Foreign Minister Elias Jaua met U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a regional summit in Guatemala.

Both Kerry and Jaua spoke positively about Wednesday's encounter, which came after years of bilateral tensions during Chavez's polarizing 14-year rule. Opposition bloggers speculated on Friday about whether Kerry brought up Afiuni's case during the discussions.

Afiuni was accused by prosecutors of taking a bribe to free businessman Eligio Cedeno, but she argued that she acted correctly because he had been behind bars while awaiting trial for longer than normally allowed under Venezuelan law.

A furious Chavez then denounced Afiuni as a "bandit on national television and said she should be given a 30-year prison sentence herself. Earlier this year, a U.N. special rapporteur on human rights defenders urged the government to free her.

Critics say Chavez rode roughshod over the judiciary to persecute his foes, while his supporters say there are no political prisoners - just legitimate criminal cases that are manipulated by opponents to cast a shadow on the government.

The firebrand president died in March after a two-year battle with cancer. His choice as successor, former foreign minister Nicolas Maduro, narrowly won an election a month later.

(Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by David Brunnstrom)

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