One of President Hugo Chavez's most well-known inspirations, leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky, is challenging the Venezuelan leader on a key human rights case by asking him to release a judge detained since 2009.
In a public letter released over the weekend, Chomsky condemned the "degrading treatment" suffered by Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni and declared himself in "total solidarity" with her.
Afiuni sparked the Chavez government's ire after she conditionally released banker Eligio Cedeno, who was charged with corruption. According to the organization Human Rights Watch, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions declared Cedeno's detention arbitrary.
Venezuelan authorities arrested Afiuni after Cedeno's release and accused her of abuse of authority, corruption and "favoring the evasion of justice," Human Rights Watch said. Chavez called her "a bandit" and said she should receive a 30-year prison sentence, according to the group. She was held in a woman's prison, where she was repeatedly insulted and threatened.
Chomsky, a MIT linguistics professor, told The Associated Press that his private communications with the Chavez government may have helped convince it to move Afiuni to house arrest.
"I felt that it was appropriate to try and make a public statement in the hope and the expectation that it could lead to a humanitarian gesture to release her," Chomsky said. "I thought that there was more that should be done."
Chomsky said he didn't believe the judge's case was part of a larger trend of repression against government critics in Venezuela. Human Rights Watch found that the Venezuelan government "systematically undermined journalistic freedom of expression" and the independence of the country's judiciary.
"I don't think it's isolated," Chomsky said, referring to the Afiuni case. "But I'm not convinced there's a larger trend."
A message left on the cell phone of a Venezuelan Justice Ministry spokesman Monday afternoon was not returned.
Chavez has touted Chomsky as an inspiration, including famously recommending one of his books during a 2006 speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
Chomsky said he had met Chavez and spoken with him for "a couple of hours," just as he's met other heads of state.
"I can't think of a country where there's no illegal repression, including in the United States," Chomsky said.