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Jailed Venezuelan judge Afiuni hopes elections bring freedom

Maria Lourdes Afiuni's campaign headquarters is six paces long and two paces wide. Visiting hours are Wednesday and Sunday, but guests risk being strip searched.

Among the hundreds of candidates in next month's parliamentary elections in Venezuela, Afiuni is one of at least four running from behind bars.

The Sept. 26 vote is expected to give Venezuela's opposition a chance to claw back power from the supporters of President Hugo Chavez who have dominated the parliament since 2005. But some are using the vote to shine a spotlight on a judicial system they say has been used to harass and imprison dissenters.

Tallies vary, but human rights groups say there are 25 to 28 political prisoners in Venezuela.

The independent party La Base Decide has drafted three of them into the upcoming race: Afiuni, a judge with a two-decade track record; Jose Sanchez, a former security chief for Zulia state and an ally of exiled opposition leader Manuel Rosales; and Otto Gebauer, a former army captain jailed for his role in a failed 2002 coup and who insists he was only following orders. A fourth opposition candidate, Belagio Pilieri, remains in jail despite being absolved of charges of misuse of funds.

"These people are all in jail for doing their job," said Ivan Ballesteros, a radio personality and member of La Base Decide who has been pushing the initiative. "They are living proof of the abuse of power by the government."

If they win, they would be eligible for parliamentary immunity and could be released.

The tactic has been used a handful of times in the past. Most notably in the 1970s when David Nieves, who was in jail on charges that he belonged to a left-wing militant group, won a seat in congress and was later freed.

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