CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan authorities began trying the country's most famous judge in absentia Wednesday while she refused to enter the courtroom alleging violations of her rights.
Coming nearly three years after her arrest, the trial of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni started amid a scandal generated by her report in a new book that she was raped while imprisoned in 2010.
Afiuni is charged with corruption, abuse of authority and aiding an inmate's escape. The judge maintains she is innocent.
Her prosecution has drawn condemnation from international human rights groups due to President Hugo Chavez's intervention in the case.
She infuriated Chavez in 2009 when she freed a banker from prison while he was awaiting trial on charges of flouting Venezuela's currency exchange controls. A day after Afiuni's arrest, Chavez said on television that she should face a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.
Afiuni refused to enter the courtroom Wednesday as she had many other times before, arguing that her rights have been violated and that judges have mishandled the case. She stayed outside guarded by National Guard soldiers, wearing a violet shirt and jeans and sitting with a calm expression.
Afiuni revealed in a book released last week by Venezuelan journalist Francisco Olivares that she was raped in the infirmary of a women's prison where she was being held in 2010. She said that she was 47 at the time and that she became pregnant. A couple of months after the attack, she said, "I didn't stop bleeding."
"After that episode was when I got sick and they removed my uterus," Afiuni is quoted as saying in the book. In February 2011, she was granted house arrest due to health problems.
The government's minister of prisons, Iris Varela, rejected the judge's account Wednesday, calling it a "vile lie."
"I'm the one who's most interested in having this situation investigated and cleared up," Varela said. "All of this comes from a strategy to sell a book."
Afiuni had previously reported abuse during her time at the prison, but the account in the book was the first time she publicly reported being raped. She did not identify her attacker.
Her brother, Nelson Afiuni, said he felt "great impotence, great pain" when he learned of the assault.
In the book, Olivares describes how other women at the prison attacked Afiuni at night, covering her face, kicking her and cutting her with razor blades. He said the beatings left the judge with bruises and cuts as well as other injuries that later required medical treatment.
Afiuni regularly airs comments on Twitter to her more than 135,000 followers. On her profile, she calls herself a "judge kidnapped by order of Chavez." On Wednesday she replied to one message saying the trial in absentia was "unconstitutional."
It was possible for the trial to begin without Afiuni due to a recent change in the penal code, which Chavez approved by decree, allowing trials to be held without the accused present.
"Today is a sad chapter in Venezuela's legal history," said Jose Amalio Graterol, one of her defense lawyers.
Graterol told The Associated Press after the hearing that Afiuni refused to enter the courtroom because "she doesn't want to be tried by a judge who violates her human rights."
He also said prosecutors have acknowledged that no money changed hands nor was promised in the judge's decision to release the banker. She freed him on condition he stay in Venezuela and regularly report to a court while awaiting trial. The banker, Eligio Cedeno, fled to the U.S. within days and was eventually granted asylum.
"They're trying to convict somebody in absentia for a crime that doesn't exist," Afiuni's brother said.
During Wednesday's hearing, Afiuni's three lawyers presented their arguments and a request for her to be freed from house arrest during the trial.
Human rights groups including Amnesty International have previously called for her release as has American activist Noam Chomsky.
Afiuni's next court hearing was scheduled for Dec. 19.