Friday, June 18, 2004

Vzla: Now the rest of the story

(Caracas, June 17, 2004) — The Venezuelan government is undermining the independence of the country’s judiciary ahead of a presidential recall referendum that may ultimately be decided in the courts, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. President Chávez’s governing coalition has begun implementing a new court-packing law that will strip the Supreme Court of its autonomy.

The 24-page report, “Rigging the Rule of Law: Judicial Independence Under Siege in Venezuela,” also examines how the new law will make judges more vulnerable to political persecution and help ensure that legal controversies surrounding the recall referendum are resolved in Chávez’s favor.  
 
“In the 2002 coup, Venezuela’s democratic order was attacked by some of Chávez’s opponents,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. “But today the biggest threat to the country’s rule of law comes from the government itself.”  
 
The new law, which President Chávez signed last month, expands the Supreme Court from 20 to 32 members. It empowers Chávez’s governing coalition to use its slim majority in the legislature to obtain an overwhelming majority of seats on the Supreme Court. The law also gives the governing coalition the power to nullify existing judges’ appointments to the bench.  
 
Chávez’s supporters in the National Assembly have announced their intention to name the 12 new justices by July and remove sitting justices whom they identify with the opposition. The Supreme Court will have jurisdiction over any legal challenges surrounding the recall referendum, which is scheduled for August 15.  
 
A political takeover of the Supreme Court will also compound the damage already done to judicial independence by policies pursued by the Court itself. The Supreme Court, which has administrative control over the judiciary, has suspended a program that would reduce the large number of judges who do not have security of tenure. It has summarily fired judges after they decided politically controversial cases. And the Supreme Court has allowed the country’s second highest court to shut down by failing to resolve the legal appeals of its dismissed judges.  
 
Chávez’s allies justify the measures as a response to the intransigence of President Chávez’s opponents. They insist that many judges decide cases based on their political convictions rather than the dictates of the law. As an example, they cite the Supreme Court’s failure to convict alleged participants in the 2002 coup.  
 
“Chávez should be working to strengthen the rule of law in Venezuela,” said Vivanco. “Instead his government is rigging the justice system to favor its own interests.”  
 
What makes the developments in Venezuela even more alarming is their potential impact on the country’s already explosive political situation, particularly the tensions surrounding the successful effort of President Chávez’s opponents to call for the national referendum that could end his presidency.  

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