Venezuelan Justice: A Sleep of Death

It's one thing for your aunt in El Cafetal say the justice system is rigged. It's something else altogether when the most prestigious legal organizations on earth start saying the same thing.


“…while I’m asleep, I’m never afraid, and I have no hopes, no struggles, no glories — and bless the man who invented sleep, a cloak over all human thought, food that drives away hunger, water that banishes thirst, fire that heats up cold, chill that moderates passion, and, finally, universal currency with which all things can be bought…”

Sancho Panza, Don Quijote, Chapter LXVIII

Opponents to the Venezuelan government have been saying for years that the country’s justice system is in a very dark place. The government has always dismissed the allegations as little more than partisan attacks.

How could a true neutral tell which side is right? If a Legal Scholar from Mars was sent to earth to figure out whether the Venezuelan government really was addicted to “rule by law” and showed unhealthy disrespect for due process, or whether the claims to this effect were just a series of politically motivated smears, how would he proceed?

Well, our martian scholar would probably seek out the most highly regarded, internationally renowned and universally respected legal associations and seek their opinions. On Planet Earth, his first ports of call would be the International Bar Association (IBA) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). And he would be in for some troubling reading.

Venezuela Justice System in Crisis

The International Bar Association (IBA), established in 1947, is the world’s leading organisation of international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. It has a membership of 55,000 individual lawyers and more than 190 bar associations and law societies spanning all continents.  

The late Ramón Mullerat co-issued the IBA Human Rights Institute’s Venezuelan Justice System in Crisis and in 2009 the updated Report underlined that public confidence in the Venezuelan justice system continued to erode.  It noted rather diplomatically:

“[t]he irregular actions of the Government, which should be trying to stop the deterioration of the rule of law, are instead only making things worse.”  

Distrust in Justice

In 2011, an IBA delegation funded by The Open Society Institute released Distrust in Justice: The Afiuni case and the independence of the judiciary in Venezuela. The delegation included a former Secretary to the Ministry of Justice for São Paulo State and member of the International Commission of Jurists and a former Prosecutor and Judge of the Supreme Court of Costa Rica.  In this report, the language became tougher:

“…serious concerns regarding the existence of a mechanism of checks and balances between the different branches of government, which are eroding the already-low credibility of the judiciary…”

Execution of Justice

Its 28-page trial observation report entitled The Execution of Justice: The Criminal Trial of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni details a number of nightmarish irregularities in the trial of Judge Afiuni.  

We are appalled that without full investigation of the allegations made  by Judge Afiuni, Venezuela’s Attorney-General would publicly deny the allegations of torture and rape before the UN Human Rights Committee… [c]onsidering the severity of Judge Afiuni’s allegations of barbaric treatment in detention, we urge the Venezuelan authorities to investigate her claims immediately. It is growing increasingly difficult to comprehend why there is a reluctance to do so.’

The International Commission of Jurists was established in 1952 and is composed of 60 eminent judges and lawyers from all regions of the world. It aims to ensure the progressive development and effective implementation of international human rights and international humanitarian law; secure the realization of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights; safeguard the separation of powers; and guarantee the independence of the judiciary and legal profession.  

The ICJ’s 2014 Report comprehensively documented failures by government authorities to combat political interference, intimidation, arbitrary suspensions and other pressures.  And just last month it published a devastating indictment of Venezuela’s justice system entitled Venezuela Sunset of Rule of Law.Two key passages stand out:

The high level of legal impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations and common felonies stands in stark contrast to the robust manner in which preventive and restrictive measures and prosecutions have been deployed to silence members of civil society, social activists and political opponents…”

“There is a clear disconnect between what is contained in the country’s Constitution and international obligations, and what happens in practice,”

While justice sleeps, the unjust do their worst.  There are well-documented examples of government officials using state media to intimidate lawyers who offer representation to those being prosecuted and who offer contrary evidence and argument to the Government’s narrative on human rights.

There have also been cases of human rights lawyers accused of conspiracy and imprisoned along with their defendants with a total disregard of due process.   On this subject, a group of United Nations and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights experts have sought assurances that the State stop using Con el Mazo Dando, a late night show hosted by the President of the Parliament, to bully human rights defenders and have called on the Venezuelan authorities “to immediately cease the targeting of rights activists.”  

If you guessed that, in response, senior state officials doubled-down on flagrantly violating and fettering the justice system’s independence, you would be right. On October 26th, Venezuela’s most senior “diplomat” (President Maduro) urged the immediate prosecution of Lorenzo Mendoza for discussing Venezuela’s economy in a private telephone conversation with Ricardo Haussman, a respected US-based academic.

Of course, such things will not come as news to avid Venezuela news watchers. But the reputational weight of the IBA and the ICJ makes it impossible to dismiss the concerns raised as merely partisan attacks. As organizations, they are uniquely positioned to document some sad truths that will build international criminal law cases against some the regime’s chief magistrates.

Of the Chavez-infused judiciary and the Venezuelan people’s reaction, Panza might have said: “[the] bad thing about sleep, as far as I’ve ever heard, and that is that it resembles death, since there’s very little difference between a sleeping man and a corpse.”

When the IBA and the ICJ can’t tell the difference between the two, you know things have come to a head.