Report says undermining Venezuelan judiciary threatens rule of law

McClatchy foreign staffJune 5, 2014 

— Political interference, intimidation and the arbitrary dismissal of judges and prosecutors over the past 15 years has undermined Venezuela’s justice system and fostered a climate of impunity, criminality and violence in the deeply divided nation, the International Commission of Jurists concluded in a report released Thursday.

The review, which drew on interviews conducted in Venezuela with over 100 former senior judges and public prosecutors as well as lawyers in Caracas, San Cristobal, Puerto Ayacucho and other cities, said that Venezuela’s constitutional guarantees of an independent judiciary “are not followed in practice.” It said “individual judges become fearful of applying the law justly and impartially because they fear reprisals or professional consequences.”

The International Commission of Jurists is an international non-government watchdog agency first set up in the early 1950s to monitor abuses in the Soviet Union and other communist countries. Its board is made up of 60 internationally known jurists. Its current president is an independent expert to the U.N. Human Rights Committee which oversees covenant on civil and political rights.

Wilder Tayler, the group’s secretary general, said the organization “had not been able to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the government” in compiling the study.

Carlos Ayala, a member of the ICJ executive committee and a professor of constitutional law at the Catholic University of Caracas, said that Venezuelan judges often are appointed by the country’s judicial commission without a public process and that the same body can “dismiss judges without due process or any procedure.”

He said 70 percent of the country’s judges are in office only provisionally and can be dismissed at any time.

Such a system “cannot be justified by the Venezuelan constitution or international law,” the ICJ report said. “The lack of security of tenure renders the system of justice vulnerable to improper influence and manipulation.”

Pedro Nikken, a former dean of the law school at the Central University of Venezuela and an ICJ board member, said the chaos within the justice system was one reason Venezuela, with a population of 30 million people, suffers 15,000 murders.

About 90 percent of the crimes aren’t investigated, encouraging other crimes, he said.

The report also found that prosecutors between 2008 and 2012 won convictions in only 12.55 percent of their cases. “This encourages a loss of confidence in the justice system, and represents one of the main causes of impunity, which in turn helps to perpetuate the feeling of citizen insecurity,” the report said.

The report also provided statistics on the impact of anti-government demonstrations this year: about 1500 students have been brought before courts, and 160 remain in jail. At least 42 people have died in the clashes _ 38 civilians and four members of law enforcement and security agencies. At least 14 cases of alleged torture have been recorded to date by law enforcement agencies, the report said.

Zarocostas in a McClatchy special correspondent.

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