A Venezuelan judge is in jail on charges of corruption and abuse of power for freeing a high-profile banker, and an angry President Hugo Chavez has demanded she be kept in a cell for the maximum sentence _ 30 years.
The president's condemnation of the judge as a "criminal" has drawn rebukes from his political opponents and also from some legal experts, who say the case is one more indication of the influence Chavez now wields over the judiciary.
The former army paratroop commander has gradually expanded his power during the past decade, gaining dominant control of congress and other institutions, and winning a vote ending term limits. Chavez denies trying to control the courts and says the legal system remains autonomous.
But the swift arrest of Judge Maria Afiuni last week over her ruling, combined with charges that appeared to come in lockstep with Chavez's angry reaction, have led some to call the case a prime example of the judiciary's lack of independence in Venezuela.
"It's unacceptable pressure being put on the judicial branch by the executive branch," Alberto Arteaga Sanchez, a criminal law professor at Venezuela's Central University, said Monday. "It's a case that demonstrates the weakness of Venezuela's democratic system."
The Caracas bar association also took issue with the arrest, saying Afiuni's decision to free the banker while he awaited trial was in line with the law. Association president Yvett Lugo told reporters the case "shows the breakdown of the rule of the law and the principle of separation of powers."
Afiuni was arrested Thursday shortly after she ordered the release of banker Eligio Cedeno, who has been jailed since 2007 on charges of flouting government currency controls to obtain U.S. dollars.
Authorities said she improperly held the hearing even though prosecutors could not attend.
Afiuni's defense lawyer could not be reached for comment on the various accusations. Cedeno's lawyer, Vicente Puppio, said the judge's decision was legal and that prosecutors had not shown up for two hearings in a row.
Cedeno quickly left the courthouse, and his whereabouts are unclear. The judge was charged with corruption, abuse of authority and colluding with the accused to allow what prosecutors call his escape. Two bailiffs also were charged.
Chavez displayed his anger Friday even before the charges were announced, saying in a televised speech: "I demand firmness against that judge." He said he had discussed the case with the president of the Supreme Court.
"A judge who frees a criminal is much, much, much more serious than the criminal himself," Chavez said. "This judge should get the maximum penalty, and whoever does this _ 30 years in prison! ... That judge has to pay for what she has done."
Arteaga, the law professor, said it's an example of the pressure judges face under Chavez, noting that other judges have been suspended or fired for what they call political reasons. The Venezuelan legal system has long had its problems, he said, "but we've never had a judicial branch so dependent on the dictates of the executive."
Leading Chavez allies in his socialist party, meanwhile, called for a thorough review of the court system, charging the banker's release was facilitated by corruption.
One party leader, Carlos Escarra, said the judge broke the law by holding the hearing without prosecutors present. And it was "something even more serious for the judge to take an accused person through the door and in the judges' private elevator, and to have a motorcycle ready downstairs to facilitate the escape," he said in a statement.
The case is symptomatic of "a judicial branch that still remains in the hands of mafias to a great extent," Escarra added.
Venezuela's political opposition has long complained of lopsided justice due to criminal cases that have landed some Chavez foes in jail. Opposition politician Delsa Solorzano said the judge's case shows court officials are "following orders" from Chavez.
Pro-Chavez lawmakers in recent years have stacked the Supreme Court with justices friendly to the government.
Last week, Supreme Court president Luisa Estela Morales said Venezuela has moved away from "a rigid separation of powers" toward a system characterized by "intense coordination" between the branches of government.
Chavez, who was in the audience, said Morales was right that "the separation of powers weakens the state." But he added that autonomy of the branches of government is another matter _ suggesting he believes the courts should be autonomous.