A judge on Wednesday refused to step aside as he rejected claims of bias made by the estranged wife of deceased former Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez in a bitter family struggle to decide Perez's final burial site.
Attorneys for Blanca Rodriguez de Perez contended that Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Arthur Rothenberg has made comments at recent hearings indicating he may have prejudged the case. Rothenberg must determine whether Perez's remains return to Venezuela with his estranged wife or stay in the U.S., as his longtime companion Cecilia Matos wants.
In a terse, one-page order Rothenberg flatly denied a motion seeking to disqualify him from hearing the case.
The recusal fight is the latest twist in a months-long international family feud that erupted after Perez died on Dec. 25 in Miami at the age of 88. Perez was Venezuela's president for the periods of 1974-79 and 1989-93 and also was a longtime political foe of current Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
An August trial is set before Rothenberg, a schedule that would have been jeopardized if he were to recuse himself and a new judge were chosen for the case. A last-ditch attempt at settlement is scheduled Thursday with a mediator behind closed doors.
Last week, under Rothenberg's orders, Perez's remains were moved to a temporary above-ground crypt from a mortuary refrigeration unit, where they had been stored since his death. Rodriguez de Perez's motion said Rothenberg should step aside because he referred twice to the temporary crypt as a permanent resting place for the former president.
For example, Rothenberg said at a June 23 hearing that he was barring news media from the crypt ceremony "because of the sacrosanct nature of putting a man to his final resting place," according to a transcript.
Rodriguez de Perez's lawyers said in the motion that she fears the judge "has already decided to rule against her. Thus, Perez fears that she will not receive a fair trial in this case."
"It does not matter whether the court has actually prejudged the merits before trial," her attorneys added. "Instead, the only question is whether Perez has a reasonable fear that the court has made up its mind."
Despite those claims, Rothenberg's order means he will continue to preside. There was no immediate comment from lawyers representing Matos.
The case hinges on whether Matos can show enough proof that Perez vowed never to return to Venezuela, alive or dead, as long as Chavez is president. Perez left no written burial instructions. His wife, with whom he had not lived with for decades, contends she has the right as surviving spouse to bring his body home.
Questions have been raised recently about Chavez's future in power following his disclosure that he is being treated for cancer in Cuba. But Chavez returned this week to Venezuela, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary of independence from Spain.
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