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In Venezuela, a criminal court judge has been jailed and the arrest order came from President Hugo Chavez, who accused the judge of corruption. Human rights groups say judges can end up behind bars, guilty only of straying too far from what the government wants. Thats especially worrisome now, as Venezuela arrests opponents on what critics say are trumped up charges.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Caracas.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Foreign language spoken)

JUAN FORERO: In a televised speech, Chavez said the maximum sentence must be leveled against Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni. He said she deserves 30 years in jail to preserve the dignity of the country.

Afiuni had been arrested the day before Chavez spoke, on December 10th. She, the bailiffs in her court, secretaries and clerks all were rounded up by the intelligence service. This after she conditionally released a former banker held nearly three years without a hearing.

Prosecutors accused her of corruption for having freed Eligio Cedeno. He'd one been close to the government but was later accused of evading currency controls. The government, though, has yet to present any evidence against Judge Afiuni.

Mr. CARLOS AYALA (Constitutional Expert, Venezuela): Judges are scared in Venezuela about deciding independently.

FORERO: That's Carlos Ayala, one of Venezuela's top constitutional experts. He says Afiuni's arrest demonstrates Chavez's ironclad grip on the judiciary. In the past, Ayala said, judges were fired for issuing rulings Chavez didn't like.

Mr. AYALA: Nowadays, judges are afraid that they not only can be dismissed and lose their jobs, but they can be put in prison after Judge Afiuni's detention.

FORERO: Ayala says that's also a problem for the opposition. Lately, the intelligence has arrested a spate of Chavez's most determined foes.

(Soundbite of political protest)

FORERO: Among those who have been jailed are leaders of a student movement and, more recently, two opposition leaders after they made public remarks deemed critical of Chavez.

Juan Carlos Apitz is a former judge here.

Mr. JUAN CARLOS APITZ (Former Judge): (Speaking foreign language).

FORERO: He says there's a grotesque inequality under the law. Apitz should know. He was fired for issuing a ruling Chavez condemned on national television. The Inter-American Court on Human Rights in Costa Rica ruled that he should be reinstated but he was instead banished from the court.

Mr. APITZ: (Speaking foreign language).

FORERO: He says those who oppose government policy cannot hope to get a fair hearing. Apitz says that's because the government has packed much of the judiciary with supporters, a charge also made in a new report by the human rights branch of the Organization of American States. Judges in Venezuela, to be sure, are not shy about expressing their admiration for Chavez.

(Soundbite of applause)

FORERO: In 2006, Supreme Court justices chanted the slogan of Chavez' so-called revolution: (Speaking foreign language), or ooh, ahh, Chavez won't go. And Supreme Court President Luisa Estela Morales has recently called the separation of powers hateful and divisive.

Ms. ELINA MORA: (Speaking foreign language).

FORERO: That's Elina Mora, Judge Afiuni's mother, and she says she prays that a higher power will free her daughter. NPR spoke to Judge Afiuni in her cramped jail cell, but we couldn't bring in a recorder. Afiuni says she keeps busy reading other prisoners' case files. They all ask her for legal advice.

As for her own case, Afiuni says she doesn't hold out much hope that the law will free her. She says she's in jail because of a whim of Chavez, and it's up to Chavez, Afiuni says, if she'll ever be freed.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas.

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