The chavismo shuffles its militants in the criminal courts

Those in Venezuela are jurists that have revolving doors. Sooner or later they have been deputies, ministers or representatives of Bolivarian associations. This report presents the conclusions of a work of data journalism that crosses the names of all the country's criminal judges with the lists of the government party, and therefore indicates that 40% of them are of chavista militancy. Among the most prominent in this case are acolytes who condemned political prisoners like Araminta González and even the first lady’s son, Walter Gavidia Flores, who was in charge of a court until 2014.

16 July 2017

Portrayed wearing a red t-shirt. Joel Dario Altuve Patiño walks confidently at the front of a crowd that raises the flags of the Bolivarian revolution. There - looking forward - he can be seen in the center of a cover photo in their social networks. But he is neither a political nor syndicate leader, let alone a grassroots militant; he is the judge in charge of the Third Trial Court of the Metropolitan Area of ??Caracas.

He is clearly a chavista. Not only it's suggested by his judgments, he’s also given away by the red cap he usually wears; he even admits it publicly in social networks. And he is not the only one: at least one in three judges of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela appears circumscribed in the lists of militants of the revolution.

In early 2006, the magistrates of the Republic inaugurated the judicial year with the famous "¡Uh, ah, Chávez no se va!" ("Chávez won't leave!"). Shrouded in the majesty of the black toga of justice, they rose from their seats in the Plenary Council of the Supreme Court to chant the chorus that used to summon the followers of the Bolivarian Revolution's leader. Being present in the auditorium, which seemed an electoral act, a proud Hugo Chávez thanked the gesture with a resounding applause.

Venezuelan magistrates are chavistas. It is not a surprise anymore to notice that the top of the Supreme Court of Justice is all red, but further down into the hierarchy a good part of Venezuelan judges also appear directly committed to the government. Their links are revealed in this investigation after the cross-reference of five databases that mix the official list of all the country's criminal judges with four of the records that the political bureau of the revolution has been filtering since 1999. The conclusion: 40% of the criminal judges are or at least have been acolytes of the government party.

40% of the criminal judges are or at least have been acolytes of the government party

Although the Judicial Power has 1,125 criminal courts throughout the country, it only confirms the names of 823 judges in charge. From these, 332 appear on at least one of the lists of militants that the United Socialist Party of Venezuela compiled in the years 2007, 2012 and 2013 or in an earlier one of the former Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) headed by former President Hugo Chávez.

Nineteen of these judges are even registered and endorsed in all the lists of chavism. Particularly outstanding in that club is the judge of the Metropolitan Area, Fanny del Valle Sánchez, who imposed in 2010 a presentation regime every 20 days against the opposition deputy for the state of Barinas, Wilmer Azuaje, now recently imprisoned for a political case and at that time sentenced for the first time by an altercation with a police officer who demanded abuse of authority, after the parliamentarian became dissident of the government.

They are political judges. Their names being among those in the trenches of the PSUV confirms that in Venezuela justice is not blind

Stands out also Javier Toro Ibarra, another unconditional, whose name will be riveted to the case of Araminta González, the young chemist who was sent to prison in 2014 after the Scientific, Criminal and Forensic Investigations Corps declared to have found explosives at her residence during a raid as result of incriminating denounces made by "cooperating patriots".

They are political judges. Their names being among those in the trenches of the PSUV confirms that in Venezuela justice is not blind. "Even if they have been coerced into signing up for any party", says the lawyer Laura Louza, who has been warning in recent years from the non-governmental organization Access to Justice, about the lack of independence of the judicial system. "If they were forced to join a party it’s even more serious, because it portrays justice as an executing branch of the Government".

Worse than Afghanistan

The article 26 of the Constitution guarantees "impartial" justice, but it is even more explicit in the article 256 about the need for judges, prosecutors and magistrates who are not biased: "(...) from the date of their appointment and until their egress they may not, except in the exercise of their vote, carry out partisan, guild, trade-union or similar political activism, or engage in private lucrative activities incompatible with their function".

Those in Venezuela are jurists that have revolving doors. For example, the case of Edgar Daniel Parra Barrios, who served as judge in the Judicial Circuit of the state of Mérida after presiding the Front of Socialist Lawyers and the Bolivarian Association of Lawyers. Not to mention the president of the Criminal Judicial Circuit of the state of Vargas, Jaime de Jesús Velásquez Martínez, who until 2004 was vice-minister of Legal Security of the Chávez government.

Not surprisingly, Venezuela ranks last in the Rule of Law Index published on a yearly basis by the World Justice Project, to measure the access to justice that a common citizen finds in the courts of 113 different countries. Even behind Afghanistan and Cambodia, Bolivarian justice has been at the bottom of the world for more than five years, according to the results of more than 100,000 surveys - applied simultaneously in all countries - that precisely measure the functioning of criminal justice, as well as separation of powers, anti-corruption efforts, open government and human rights among other issues.

"The doorman of a court has more stability than the presiding judge"

Without going too far, more than half of the Venezuelan population values ??their judges negatively. According to 2015 Living Conditions National Survey, carried out by the universities Simón Bolívar, Católica Andrés Bello and Central de Venezuela, 56% consider their work as "very bad". At the head of this study, Roberto Briceño-León, a researcher, points out that even worse is the idea that the country has about the relationship between judges and crimes: 52% link them directly while another 32% think they are more or less related.

Regardless of perceptions, reality shows these civil servants are vulnerable, subordinated to a system in which they lack autonomy. From 1,125 criminal courts in the country, only 273 have permanent judges, according to the data processed for this work, presented with some inaccuracies by the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ). That is, only one in four judges is titular, while the rest are temporary, accidental, itinerant or substitute and may well be dismissed without any disciplinary process. "The doorman of a court has more stability than the presiding judge", summarizes Briceño-León.

The jurist's profile

If a profile of the jurist in charge of the criminal courts was to be made, the data indicate they are attorneys graduated mainly from the Universidad Santa María in Caracas and whose position was not obtained through a merit-based selection contest as established by the Constitution in the article 255. They are sympathetic to chavism and in 40% of cases they have even joined the government party.

Sometimes they even exhibit more severity in cases against supporters and leaders of the Venezuelan opposition. An example of this: Alfredo Baptista Oviedo, of the Criminal Judicial Circuit of Aragua, who is a member of the PSUV and had more leniency for his comrades, the Puente Llaguno gunmen, than with a group of young people who last year participated in a protest against the head of state, Nicolás Maduro.

Judges Maikel Moreno and Marjorie Calderón arrived at the directive board of the Supreme Court of Justice after forging their paths with rulings against emblematic political

In a joint judgment with two other colleagues, Baptista declared innocent and released four of the subjects that were recorded on video on April 11, 2002 in the center of Caracas firing at the concentration calling for Chavez's resignation. But last year he ordered the arrest of 13 young people who participated in the march that the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) called on October 26 under the name of the "Takeover of Venezuela".

The system rewards the chavistas. Judges Maikel Moreno and Marjorie Calderón arrived at the directive board of the Supreme Court of Justice after forging their paths - precisely in the criminal courts - with rulings against emblematic political prisoners such as commissioner Iván Simonovis. The efficient ones are able to climb positions, but the system also knows how to expel and punish those who break the mold. This is the case of judge María Lourdes Afiuni, for whom the United Nations requested in 2010 her immediate release, as well as the reinstatement of her position as head of the 31st Control Court of Caracas, from which she was dismissed after issuing precautionary measures against Eligio Cedeño, another political prisoner.

The shadow of the Afiuni case

"In Venezuela, judges do not decide, but rather satisfy the whims of the government", declared Afiuni on June 30, 2015 in one of the same courtrooms of the Palace of Justice of Caracas where, years before, she stood out on the podium. "In six years they destroyed my life, my daughter's and my family's".

On that day, Afiuni broke the silence on a series of tortures and vexations she had kept in reserve. She told that she received a kick with a National Guard's boot which caused a distortion in one of her breasts. That she was forced to share the pavilion with inmates who had previously been convicted in her office and receive beatings and harassment from them. That in several opportunities they sprayed her cell with gasoline. That she was victim of several beatings and that nobody, at all, did anything to avoid it.

"I want you to know one thing: they emptied my uterus", she said looking at one of the many judges who knew the case. Another of them, ironies of life, was Alí Paredes, the next that went to prison after the Judicial Commission pointed at him for favoring the Venezuelan drug trafficker, Walid Makled, and his brothers.

"I would never betray this process, much less my commander, because I carry the revolution in my blood”

Paredes was more lenient with the Makled brothers than with Afiuni, to whom not only denied precautionary measures in substitution of imprisonment but also medical treatment. The defense of the judge attributed this behavior only to links between the jurist and the government, which are now evident looking in the records of PSUV militants. "I would never betray this process, much less my commander, because I carry the revolution in my blood (...) for the revolution I would give my life as I risked it on April 11 in Puente Llaguno", he posted in 2009 on the website of the government party itself.

Even with a license, the revolution eats its own children. Paredes is an example of the 332 cases of judges declared chavistas that this investigation expose and who swarm the courts corridors.

There, however, in the twists and turns of the judicial system, there are no answers on this subject: as if it were a novel by Franz Kafka, it was not possible for a representative of the Supreme Court to explain how the Venezuelan judges are all red. Much less in the Executive Direction of the Magistracy where, in the absence of answers, in the institution's Department of Security they took the data of the author of the note and confiscated his ID card during an interrogation that demanded the motivations of its questions.

Instead of explaining the devices they use to select the judges responsible for settling killings and kidnappings in one of the hemisphere's most violent countries, on the afternoon of July 6, it seemed suspicious that someone was investigating the matter. "You're gringo", was their conclusion.

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