Sunday, April 25, 2010

Venezuelan judge is jailed after ruling angers President Hugo Chávez

Venezuelan judge is jailed after ruling angers President Hugo Chávez
By Juan Forero
Sunday, April 25, 2010

LOS TEQUES, VENEZUELA -- Sitting in the tiny jail cell that has been her home for months, Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni said she knew a ruling she handed down in December might incense Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

But she was astonished when intelligence agents arrested her and the entire courtroom staff 15 minutes after she freed a prisoner the government wanted in jail.

"I never thought -- never -- that the violations would get to this point," said Afiuni, 46, who is being held here in a cellblock filled with women charged with drug trafficking and murder, some of whom she sentenced.

The jailing of a tenured judge who angered the president has brought into sharp focus the increasingly tight control Chávez exerts over the judiciary, a situation condemned by legal watchdog groups and constitutional experts across the Americas.

Advocates for an independent judiciary in Venezuela also say the judge's plight, along with the arrests of dozens of government opponents in recent months, demonstrates how far the Chávez administration will go to quell dissent.

"The message from the Afiuni case is very clear: If a judge doesn't do what we want, you go to jail," said Carlos Ayala, a constitutional lawyer and former president of the Andean Commission of Jurists. "Judges are scared out of their wits. Before, they got fired for these decisions. Now they go to jail."

Afiuni was charged with corruption and abuse of authority after she conditionally freed Eligio Cedeño, a banker who had run afoul of the government and was accused of evading currency controls. Cedeño waited in jail nearly three years for his first court hearing, which exceeded legal limits, Afiuni said in a recent interview. He fled the country and is seeking political asylum in Miami.

The Venezuelan attorney general's office said it could not comment on Afiuni's case. But in an interview, Carlos Escarra, a pro-Chávez congressman and legal expert, said "there's a series of actions that show a bribe was paid" to Afiuni, a charge she denies. In a speech the day after Afiuni was arrested, Chávez accused her of crimes "more serious than an assassination."

"I call for 30 years in prison in the name of the dignity of the country," he said.

More than any other case, Afiuni's arrest has alarmed independent justices and those who track Venezuela's judiciary. Bar associations from New York to Madrid have demanded her release, and thousands follow her through Twitter feeds. Her first court hearing has been postponed repeatedly by "suspicious delays," said one of her attorneys, Juan Ernesto Garanton.

"What has been really hard is knowing my fate is in Chávez's hands," Afiuni said. "Just as my detention was a result of the whim of the president, my release will also be a whim of his."

Chávez and ministers in his government frequently declared the judicial system in place before his election in 1998 a vestige of a corrupt system that needed to be jettisoned. In its place, the government in 2004 created a Supreme Court overwhelmingly sympathetic to the president, according to a recent report by the human rights arm of the Organization of American States, of which Venezuela is a member.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also found that Venezuelan judges have been dismissed after issuing rulings that antagonize the government, and that hundreds more are named to posts through an opaque system. Legal experts in Venezuela estimate that about half of the judges are provisional, which they say leaves them more susceptible to pressure.

Many of the remaining judges have demonstrated their allegiance to Chávez and expressed support for the government's efforts to create a system that blurs the separation of powers.

Escarra, the pro-government lawmaker, said judges who were replaced had issued rulings that favored people who wanted to destabilize Chávez. He said accusations that the president interferes in the judiciary were exaggerated.

Some judges have wound up like Juan Carlos Apitz.

In 2003, Apitz was on a five-judge court that ruled that doctors from Cuba, Venezuela's closest ally, could not work in Venezuela unless they revalidated their qualifications. At the time, Cuba was deploying thousands of doctors to Venezuela in exchange for cut-rate oil.

Chávez called the decision "unconstitutional." Then 46 intelligence agents raided the court and searched through paperwork for more than 10 hours. Apitz and two other judges who had ruled with him were banished from the judiciary; the two dissenters were promoted to the Supreme Court.

Apitz said the dismissal of independent judges means that opponents have no real legal recourse if they want to challenge a government investigation or an arrest. That is particularly troubling these days, he said, because the intelligence service has arrested dozens of anti-government student protesters and opposition leaders in recent months.

"In Venezuela, there is a grotesque inequality in applying the law," he said. "Those who do not share the national government's politics are at a disadvantage."


Arizona's Harsh Anti-Immigration Law Sparks Anger

Arizona's Harsh Anti-Immigration Law Sparks Anger
More By Max Fisher on April 20, 2010 2:31pm
Arizona is not known for stretching a welcome mat across its long desert border with Mexico. The state's laws are among the country's harshest and most restrictive toward illegal immigrants. Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County was dubbed "America's toughest sheriff" for his sweeping arrests and sometimes rough treatment of suspected illegal immigrants. But Arizona's strict anti-immigration stance is about to get even stricter. The state senate has passed a new law that, if passed, will bring restrictions against suspected illegal immigrants, and relevant police powers, to unprecedented levels. Many national political pundits are stidently opposed or, in the case of many conservatives, conspicuously silent.

What the Bill Does The New York Times' Randal Archibold reports, "The bill makes it a state crime for immigrants not to carry authorization papers, requires the police 'when practicable' to check the immigration status of people they reasonably suspect are in the country illegally and allows people to sue cities and counties if the law is not being enforced." Gawker's Alex Pareene summarizes, "Now any cop in Arizona can ask anyone to prove their immigration status, and every cop in Arizona is compelled, under threat of lawsuit, to enforce federal immigration laws." Police do not require warrants or the proof of probable cause to detain suspected illegal immigrants.
The Guy Behind It Citing the New York Times report, Gawker's Jeff Neumann calls the bill's author, state senator Russell Pearce, "a friend of neo-nazis." Neumann cites photographs of Pearce appearing with a man who was also the featured speaker at a neo-nazi gathering, Pearce's stated admiration of a 1950s program called "Operation Wetback," and an email he sent to supporters that included (mistakenly, he said) an attachment from a white supremacist group.
Reminiscent of 'Fascist Europe' The Los Angeles Times editorial board calls it "racial profiling," lamenting, "Even legal immigrants, in a move that harks back to fascist Europe, would be required to carry their papers at all times or risk arrest."
'Off the Deep End' The New York Times is appalled. "The Arizona Legislature has just stepped off the deep end of the immigration debate, passing a harsh and mean-spirited bill that would do little to stop illegal immigration. What it would do is lead to more racial profiling, hobble local law enforcement, and open government agencies to frivolous, politically driven lawsuits."
Congressman: Mass Deportations Writing in the Huffington Post, Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez warns, "The Obama administration has escalated mass deportation as our singular approach to immigrants ... We are now deporting people at a rate of 1,000 per day -- with nearly half of the arrests in the state of Arizona -- and now the state legislature is on the verge of escalating that pace dramatically."
Legislation Unlike Anything Since Jim Crow Arizona-based legal defender Isabel Garcia tells CNN that the bill "legalizes racial profiling." She says,"I think this bill represents the most dangerous precedent in this country, violating all of our due process rights. ... We have not seen this kind of legislation since the Jim Crow laws. And targeting our communities, it is the single most largest attack on our communities."
AZ Senators: We Don't All Support The Washington Independent's Julizza Trevino reports, "Several senators spoke out against the bill, arguing that Arizona could become the Alabama of the new century, that the bill may be unconstitutional and that it could turn family members of illegal immigrants into criminals. One senator called the bill 'un-American,' and another expressed concern over how Arizona might be viewed if the legislation were passed and whether tourism would suffer as a result."
Obama Could Have Averted This The American Prospect's Adam Serwer sighs, "this episode illustrates the folly of having tapped Janet Napolitanoto serve as Secretary of Homeland Security, given her past role as a check against the worst anti-immigrant impulses of Arizona politicians when she was the state's governor."

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Wiesenthal Center Protest AZ Governor's Anti-Immigration Bill

This isn't about immigration, it's about discrimination. This law stigmatizes people of color as second class citizens and exposes them to intimidation and the use of racial profiling as a weapon of bias.
Wiesenthal Center Protests AZ Governor's Anti-Immigration Bill

"This isn't about immigration, it's about discrimination," says Center founder Rabbi Hier
NEW YORK, April 23 /PRNewswire/ -- The Simon Wiesenthal Center today expressed disappointment that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed the anti-immigration bill into law, that among other things makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally and requires local law enforcement to determine an individual's legal status and arrest without warrant a person if there is "reasonable suspicion" that he or she is in the U.S. illegally.

"This isn't about immigration, it's about discrimination," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center. "We should not forget that we're a nation of immigrants. This law makes no sense it guarantees and stigmatizes people of color as second-class citizens and exposes them to intimidation and the use of racial profiling as a weapon of bias," he concluded.

As part of its Tools for Tolerance® diversity programs, the Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and New York Tolerance Center in Manhattan include training law enforcement professionals across the country to address difficult questions and concerns over racial profiling. Law enforcement agencies across Arizona have participated in this program.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center is one of the largest international Jewish human rights organizations with over 400,000 member families in the United States. It is an NGO at international agencies including the United Nations, UNESCO, the OSCE, the OAS, the Council of Europe and the Latin American Parliament (Parlatino).

For more information, please contact the Center's Public Relations Department, join the Center on Facebook,, or follow @simonwiesenthal for news updates sent direct to your Twitter page or mobile device.

SOURCE Simon Wiesenthal Center

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Arizona's Effort to Bolster local Immigration Authority Divides Law Enforcement

I am against this law, totally racist and against the human rights.
vdebate reporter
NY Times
Arizona’s Effort to Bolster Local Immigration Authority Divides Law Enforcement

PHOENIX — A bill the Arizona Legislature passed this week that would hand the state and local police broad powers to enforce immigration law has split police groups and sown confusion over how the law would be applied.

While Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, has yet to say whether she will sign the bill into law, on Wednesday a national police group condemned it as likely to lead to racial and ethnic profiling and to threaten public safety if immigrants did not report crime or did not cooperate with the authorities out of fear of being deported.

The police group joined a growing list of organizations and religious and political leaders far from the state’s borders urging Ms. Brewer to veto the bill. Her spokesman said that of the 15,011 calls and letters her office had received on the bill, more than 85 percent opposed it.

The law would require the police “when practicable” to detain people they reasonably suspected were in the country without authorization. It would also allow the police to charge immigrants with a state crime for not carrying immigration documents. And it allows residents to sue cities if they believe the law is not being enforced.

Members of the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative, a group of police leaders pressing for a federal overhaul of immigration law, said they worried that other states would copy Arizona, despite the likelihood that the law will be challenged in federal court.

“Just because it is in Arizona doesn’t mean it’s likely to remain there,” said George Gascón, the chief of the San Francisco Police Department and a former chief in Mesa, a Phoenix suburb. “We are very concerned about what could happen to public safety.”

The Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police and several sheriffs have also come out against the bill, calling it burdensome and an intrusion into a federal matter.

Most police agencies or jails here already check the immigration status of people charged with a crime, in consultation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but the new law would expand that power and allows the police to stop people on the suspicion of being in the country without documents.

The Mexican Embassy released a statement expressing concern that the law would lead to racial profiling and damage cross-border relations.

But some of the largest rank-and-file police groups have come out strongly in favor of the bill.

The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the city police department’s largest union, has promoted the bill as a “common sense proactive step in the right direction in the continuing battle on illegal immigration.”

The Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 6,500 officers statewide, endorsed the bill but said it had reservations over the potential costs to departments and the lack of training for local officers to identify who might be in the country illegally.

Bryan Soller, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said if officers ended up arresting large numbers of illegal immigrants, that could add to already crowded jails and costs. Mr. Soller also said departments were worried about the expense of defending any lawsuits by people contending that the law was not being enforced.

But he said he thought many concerns were overblown. His group initially opposed the bill but endorsed it after language was included that he and sponsors believe give officers discretion to use it, in part to ward off federal civil rights claims.

“Some will go out and use it a lot,” Mr. Soller said. “But you are not going to see them doing things much different from what they do now.”

All sides agree that a federal overhaul to better control immigration would help, and advocacy groups, pointing to the Arizona bill, are pushing lawmakers to act soon. But several people involved in the negotiations in Washington said a federal bill was not close to being ready.

Julia Preston contributed reporting from New York.

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Friday, April 23, 2010

Chavez under fire from international community

Chávez under fire from international community

By Benedict Mander in Caracas

The unfulfilled dream of Hugo Chávez’s idol, Venezuela’s 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, was to unify South America. But a heated exchange at a recent regional summit meeting – during which Venezuela’s leader told Alvaro Uribe, his Colombian counterpart, to “go to hell” – underlined how elusive this goal remains.

In recent days, Mr Chávez’s socialist government has come under heavy fire from the international community for allegedly assisting drug traffickers and violating human rights at home. Now it has been accused of co-operating with Spanish and Colombian insurgents on assassination plots.

Mr Chávez has rejected “unacceptable and politically-motivated accusations” made by a Spanish judge last week that it had collaborated with Basque separatist group Eta and Farc, the Colombian guerrillas, to assassinate top Colombian politicians including President Alvaro Uribe.

On the same day, Venezuelan security forces were singled out in the US State Department’s annual report on international drugs trafficking for “directly assisting” Colombian guerrillas linked to cocaine smuggling.

The previous week, the Organisation of American States released a scathing report accusing Venezuela’s government of undermining democracy and the rule of law through human rights abuses, political repression and eroding the separation of powers.

Venezuelan authorities brushed off the criticisms as part of a continued internationally co-ordinated smear campaign intended to discredit Mr Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution”, long a fierce opponent of global capitalism and US imperialism.

“It’s been said that there are Hezbollah cells in Venezuela, practically that Bin Laden is in Venezuela – they also say that we are trying to build an atomic bomb with Iran. It’s laughable,” said Mr Chávez.

Mr Chávez described the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as a “mafia” and its leader as “pure excrement”. He also threatened to leave the OAS altogether, after the report detailed the firing of Venezuelan judges whose rulings were not to the government’s liking, the closure of critical media outlets and the obstruction of democratically-elected opposition politicians.

“Things aren’t looking too good for Chávez on the international scene,” said Mervin Rodriguez, head of international relations at the Central University of Venezuela, who said that the former tank commander is losing support and credibility abroad, with lower oil prices limiting his ability to spread influence. “Chávez has actively sought out enemies, and now that he is weaker comes the international counterattack – his enemies have been waiting for this moment,” he said.

Pro-government commentators have characterised the attacks as intended to weaken support for Mr Chávez ahead of key legislative elections in September, in which the opposition hopes to wrest a majority from the government that allows it to pass laws at will.

The criticisms come at a difficult time for Mr Chávez, who is already facing a series of complicated domestic challenges, including persistently high inflation and violent crime, as well as serious water and electricity shortages causing continuous blackouts.

“I wish Chávez would spend a bit more time dealing with problems at home, rather than wasting time and money abroad which don’t make much difference to me,” said Sergio Romero, a bus driver from Caracas, the capital.

The array of challenges facing Mr Chávez on the home front are chipping away at his popularity, and seven ministers have quit or been fired in recent weeks. Also, one of the most high-profile and successful pro-government politicians, Henri Falcon, governor of Lara state, recently resigned from Mr Chávez’s United Socialist party, signalling growing dissent and disappointment among the “chavista” ranks, say analysts.

The latest accusations will also pose a challenge for both Spain and Colombia, two of Venezuela’s top trade partners.

Colombia in particular has been seeking to defuse a tense standoff, in hope of reinstating former trade relations, which reached $7bn in annual bilateral trade until Mr Chávez froze economic and diplomatic ties last year in protest at Colombia’s deal to allow US troops greater access to its military bases. Colombia has also offered to export electricity to alleviate Venezuela’s energy crisis.

Meanwhile, Spain’s relations with Venezuela have constituted a delicate balancing act, with major commercial interests to protect such as Telefonica and Repsol, which recently won a major contract to develop a block in the oil-rich Orinoco belt. Although bilateral relations have improved since the arrival of leftist Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, they were put to the test when Mr Chávez nationalised the Venezuelan franchise of Banco Santander, and when King Juan Carlos once told Mr Chávez to “shut up” after interrupting Mr Zapatero at a summit meeting.

Mr Zapatero ordered his foreign ministry to “request an explanation” from Venezuela after a Spanish national court judge announced indictments for 13 Farc and Eta suspects accused of conspiracy to commit murder and terrorism and that had alleged ties with the Venezuelan government.

Venezuela rejected the accusations as “tendentious and baseless”, arguing that they were based on information taken from files allegedly found on a laptop seized from a Farc leader killed during a Colombian military air strike on a rebel camp in Ecuador in 2008.

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Chavez marks Venezuela independence, foes unhappy

Chavez marks Venezuela independence, foes unhappy

By Andrew Cawthorne
Sunday, April 18, 2010; 2:43 PM
CARACAS (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez kicked off a national party on Sunday for the 200th anniversary of Venezuela's independence, but critics used the date to accuse him of turning the nation into a Cuban-style dictatorship.

The socialist leader -- who casts himself as the heir to 19th century South American independence leader Simon Bolivar -- was due to welcome fellow leftist heads of state, including Cuba's Raul Castro and Bolivia's Evo Morales, during the day.

On Monday, exactly 200 years after Venezuela's initial declaration of independence from Spain, the leaders of the Chavez-led ALBA alliance of nations are to hold a summit in Caracas amid celebrations across the nation.

"We are just a few hours away from the great party," Chavez wrote. "Happy commemoration of 200 years of struggle. Fatherland, Socialism or Death! We will overcome!"

As well as adopting the language of his friend and mentor Fidel Castro, the former Cuban president, Chavez has likewise presented his 11-year rule as a chance for Venezuela to finally achieve true independence after decades of capitalist rule.

The Venezuelan socialist, who came to prominence in a failed 1992 coup and then won power at the ballot-box six years later, has taken over Fidel Castro's role as the continent's leading critic of U.S. power.

Street-parties and special events were beginning all over Venezuela on Sunday. Armies of workers and volunteers -- dressed in the red T-shirts and caps of Chavez supporters -- swarmed over Caracas, sprucing up streets and buildings ahead of a military parade and other events planned for Monday.

Opponents, who have only beaten Chavez once in about a dozen votes since 1998, fumed as they saw him turn the anniversary into a massive show of support for his government.

Some supporters of the "First Justice" party rallied at a Caracas square for an alternative "independence declaration".

"After 200 years, we are again under an odious foreign domination," its leader Julio Borges said, accusing Chavez of an "indignant submission" to the Castro brothers. "The freedom fighters 200 years ago did not fight for ... dictatorship."


Thousands of Cubans are working with the Chavez government, deployed in shanty-town medical clinics and sports training centers and delicate areas such as security agencies and energy projects.

Chavez supporters view that as a model of international cooperation, while critics say it breaches sovereignty.

Former Venezuelan president Carlos Andres Perez, whom Chavez failed to oust in 1992, also weighed in.

"It is not possible to celebrate when a militarized, authoritarian and pro-Communist regime, headed by a murderous coup-monger, has kidnapped the nation," he said.

Perez even compared Chavez to Hitler in his buildup of a pro-government militia. The training of teenage "communications guerrillas" -- to counter the anti-Chavez push of private media -- has divided Venezuelan opinion this week.

Chavez and his critics are building up to a September assembly vote, where opposition parties hope to cut into the government's majority and show his popularity is waning.

Though opinion polls are difficult to follow in Venezuela, due to accusations of political bias, it is clear Chavez's popularity has fallen in the last year, from more than 60 percent to about 50 percent or less.

That, however, is still a relatively high rating and enough to help him win in September, analysts say. Venezuela's poor majority give Chavez high marks for social policies including free clinics and schools, and subsidized food networks.

"This idea that Chavez is losing approval and is on the way out is absolute rubbish," said pensioner Edith Valencia, eating at a state-run "socialist pancake" shop in Caracas.

"We admit not everything is perfect and it is a tough year, we even admit he has made some mistakes. But will we vote for him? You bet! I am a Chavista to the core."

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko -- both recent visitors to Venezuela -- sent congratulations for the 200th anniversary.

Chavez is seeking to strengthen global ties that work against U.S. dominance and would have been hosting Chinese President Hu Jintao this weekend were it not for a major earthquake in western China.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Press Freedom In Venezuela

spite the many advances we have witnessed among countries in our region, democracy is still threatened in the Western Hemisphere.

Authorities cannot let political concerns undermine the freedom of expression.
Despite the many advances we have witnessed among countries in our region, democracy is still threatened in the Western Hemisphere. The rights of free speech, a free press and individual expression are essential to the functioning of our institutional democracies. Nevertheless, authorities in Venezuela have recently taken actions against press critics and others who engage in peaceful dissent.

The arrest of the owner of a local television channel for allegedly making offensive remarks toward the Venezuelan government sends a strong message that citizens there are not free to express their opinions and engage in an open dialogue. Without that freedom, all other rights are in jeopardy. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press must be respected for all individuals and media organizations, regardless of their political philosophies.

It is easy to look at anyone who criticizes you as being out of bounds, but authorities cannot let political concerns undermine the freedom of expression. In the end, whoever is elected needs constructive criticism.

It also is the responsibility of democratic countries to expose attacks on democratic principles wherever they may occur. In so doing, they ensure that future generations will enjoy the same rights that we demand for ourselves. Along with Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, the United States has expressed its concerns about the willingness of the Venezuelan government to honor its commitment under the Inter-American Democratic Charter to uphold this principle.

In this regard, it is also hoped that the Organization of American States will enforce the charter within the hemisphere to protect democratic principles and individual liberties.

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