Judicial independence is the cornerstone of democracy. This is especially true in developing countries, where laws and basic rights are often in jeopardy, and institutions are weak.
A prime example is the case of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni in Venezuela. She was imprisoned by the government of President Hugo Chavez for having the temerity to release a government
No Venezuelan judge has publicly taken up her cause – for fear of retribution by the state. So it has fallen to judges globally to speak out. The Canadian Association of Provincial Judges is right to condemn the Venezuelan government’s action against judicial independence. In a recent letter, the association, which represents 1,000 judges, called on Mr. Chavez to release Ms. Afiuni and to protect her from unlawful behaviour.
The judge’s troubles began in 2009 after she granted bail to a banker charged with evading currency controls; his pretrial detention had violated Venezuelan law. After Mr. Chavez expressed outrage about the ruling, the judge was charged with corruption and abuse of power and imprisoned.
Ms. Afiuni has called herself “the President’s prisoner” and tweeted about her experience in an overcrowded, dangerous jail. Though she is now under house arrest, her conditions have barely improved. On Sept. 16, two assailants fired guns at the building where she resides.
It is not the role of government to judge judges. If the state takes action against judicial decision-makers whose rulings are contrary to the government’s views, then how can an ordinary citizen be guaranteed access to justice?
Human Rights Watch has noted that her case has had a negative impact on all judges, who now feel pressured to resolve cases in favour of the government.
There are signs that this authoritarian streak is costing Mr. Chavez support. He is running for re-election Oct. 7. While still leading the polls, his main rival is closing in on him. Accusations of cronyism and corruption have resonated with voters.
If Mr. Chavez wants to re-energize his campaign, he should release the judge, and show voters that he respects democratic checks and balances.