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U.N. experts say Venezuela's Chavez creating fear

GENEVA (Reuters) - Three U.N. human rights experts on Wednesday accused President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela of creating a climate of fear among his country’s legal profession with the arrest last week of a woman judge.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez gestures as he attends the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen December 16, 2009. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

The three, all from developing countries, said Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni was seized by police on December 10, a day after she ordered the conditional release of long-detained opposition politician Eligio Cedeno.

“Reprisals for exercising their constitutionally guaranteed functions and creating a climate of fear among the judiciary and lawyers’ profession serve no purpose except to undermine the rule of law and obstruct justice,” they said in a statement.

Opposition leaders often accuse the populist president of trying to reduce constitutional freedoms, but the former paratrooper argues that opponents work secretly with the United States to try and overthrow his elected government.

According to the statement, issued by the United Nations in Geneva, Judge Afiuni had based her decision to free Cedeno on a finding by the world body’s working group on arbitrary detention in September that his right to a free trial was being violated.

She had been now charged with corruption, being an accessory to escape, criminal conspiracy and abuse of power, and denied a public defender, they said.

The three experts were El Hadji Malick Sow of Senegal, a specialist on arbitrary detention, Gabriela Carina Knaul de Albuquerque e Silva of Brazil who reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council on the independence of judges, and Margaret Sekaggya of Uganda who reports to the council on human rights defenders.

The statement said Chavez had gone on television to denounce both Afiuni and Cedeno as “bandits” and demand that the judge be given a 30-year jail sentence for corruption. He had also told the attorney general to punish her “as severely as possible.”

The president also suggested that Cedeno’s defense lawyers had engaged in criminal conduct by requesting his release, they declared.

“The immediate and unconditional release of Judge Afiuni is imperative,” they added. (Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Jon Hemming)