By David Adams
MIAMI (Reuters) - A Venezuelan Supreme Court judge who was removed from his post last month for assisting a drug trafficker has accused President Hugo Chavez's leftist government of systematically manipulating the courts, including meddling in drug cases.
Eladio Aponte fled two weeks ago to Costa Rica, where he contacted officials of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and was flown to the United States, a Costa Rican official told Reuters.
"It's very corrupt at every single level. There's a lot of manipulation," Aponte said in an interview taped in Costa Rica by Miami-based online TV channel Soi TV and broadcast on Wednesday in Venezuela by an opposition television station.
The Chavez government accused the DEA of picking up a fugitive from Venezuelan justice to use him as a political tool to attack it. DEA representatives in Miami and Washington declined to comment.
Washington would likely use any evidence of corruption to discredit Chavez, and if Aponte's allegations are true, they will also raise the prospect of the United States bringing more drug charges against senior officials in his government.
Should Aponte agree to cooperate with the DEA, he would be the highest-ranking former Venezuelan official to testify about corruption in Chavez's socialist government.
The United States accuses the Venezuelan government of turning a blind eye to drug trafficking and appointing corrupt military officers to top positions.
Chavez, who is battling cancer, says Venezuela has made great progress in fighting drug traffickers operating along its border with Colombia and accuses the United States of seeking to undermine his self-styled "revolution."
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicholas Maduro said Chavez's opponents had seized on the fugitive judge as their new hero and turned him into an "honorable gentleman" overnight in their newspaper headlines.
"He sold his soul to the DEA, which has reappeared as a political actor instead of an agency for combating drugs," Maduro told reporters in Caracas.
The minister rejected Aponte's allegations, saying his dismissal from the Supreme Court proved Venezuela's judiciary was working properly.
Chavez ended cooperation with the DEA in 2005 amid accusations that its agents were spying and violating the sovereignty of Venezuela, a major oil-producing nation that provides close to 10 percent of U.S. crude and fuel imports.
Henrique Capriles, the opposition presidential candidate who will run against Chavez on October 7, said the former judge's allegations showed that the government ran the judiciary.
"There is no justice in Venezuela. There is only justice for the powerful who manipulate the courts at whim," he said.
Aponte, 63, left Venezuela after a National Assembly ethics hearing stripped him of his post as vice president of the Supreme Court and chief justice of the criminal appeals court.
His current whereabouts are unknown, although a senior Costa Rican official confirmed Aponte left the Central American country on Tuesday morning on a U.S. government plane after speaking with DEA agents in the capital, San Jose.
"Mr. Aponte, when he was in Costa Rica, made direct contact with U.S. authorities ... including the DEA," Mauricio Boraschi, Costa Rica's director of Intelligence and National Security, told Reuters on Wednesday.
Aponte was a low-profile military lawyer whose career took off as a result of a military purge by Chavez following a short-lived coup in 2002 during which the president was briefly ousted from office.
He was fired by the National Assembly after allegations surfaced that he had authorized the issuance of a special government identity card for Walid Makled, a Venezuelan businessman jailed on drug trafficking charges.
Makled, who is wanted in the United States on drug trafficking charges, was arrested in Colombia in 2010 and was later extradited to Venezuela.
In the 41-minute interview with Soi TV, Aponte admitted his role in supplying the identity card to Makled, but said he issued many of them and had no knowledge of his involvement in drug trafficking at the time.
Aponte said he knew Makled because they both hailed from the city of Valencia in the state of Carabobo, where Makled was a successful businessman involved in the oil industry, as well as government social programs.
Sweating profusely throughout the interview, Aponte admitted to perverting the course of justice and doing the government's bidding at the request of both civilian and military officials working in the presidential palace.
The justice system in Venezuela is manipulated by government officials like "Plasticine," he said.
WHY DID HE NOT SPEAK OUT?
Asked why he did not speak out sooner, Aponte said, "Because I believed in the revolutionary process." He said he later began to have misgivings but held his tongue "because they would have fired me."
Aponte said he was frequently told by the presidential palace how to rule on judicial cases that the government was interested in. He said he was often contacted by Alejandro Castillo, a federal prosecutor, whom Aponte described as being part of a group of "preferred" officials inside the Attorney General's office who worked closely with the palace.
He said top government officials regularly met judges and prosecutors in the vice president's office to discuss what action to take in legal cases that were important to the government. "That's where the directives of the justice system come from," he said.
In the interview, Aponte described how he was ordered by senior government officials to release a Venezuelan army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Pedro Maggino Belichi, who had been arrested in November 2005 for allegedly helping smuggle 2 tons of cocaine in the state of Lara.
Aponte said he was assigned the case and told to free Maggino in June 2006 by Captain Antonio Morales, a military officer who he said was part of Chavez's inner circle.
Aponte said he was contacted by several other senior officials including then-Defense Minister General Raul Baduel, who later fell out of favor and is currently in jail on corruption charges.
Aponte said he was told Maggino "was a good guy, that it was the president's order. That the president was very interested in the case."
Aponte also admitted to signing orders to keep some government opponents in jail as political prisoners, but said he now repented of his deeds. "If I did something wrong, I take the blame, and if I have to pay for it, so be it," he said. "I know what's coming my way, and what's coming my way isn't good."
(Additional reporting by Isabella Cota in Costa Rica, and Anthony Boadle and Daniel Wallis in Caracas; editing by Mohammad Zargham)