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Removal of judicial workers and freedom of expression in Venezuela

In the last four months, at least one hundred judicial employees and close to fifty judges from all Venezuelan regions have been fired, suspended, or have suddenly resigned. Unionized judicial workers sounded the alarm on July 13th because the special Judicial Commission set up by Supreme Justice Tribunal (TSJ) to carry on this job, have not even informed most of those affected of the reasons of its decisions.

This last week, two more news gave a new dimension to the work of the Judicial Commission. The first is that one of the suspended judges said she was pressured by a superior to prohibit the head of a television channel, which is openly critic to the government, from leaving the country and was dismissed after she refused to do so. According to media reports, prosecutors have accused the head of the channel of usury and conspiracy to commit a crime - accusations stemming from the recent seizure of 24 new vehicles on his property. The TV executive denies any wrongdoing, saying the accusations are politically motivated, and that President Hugo Chavez is using prosecutors and judges to bring trumped-up charges against prominent opponents.

The second is that a few days ago the Venezuelan Attorney General submitted to the National Assembly, in which President Chavez enjoys more than a majority, a legislative proposal that according to most observers unduly limits freedom of expression. The legislative proposal, among other things, typifies as “media crimes”, to be sanctioned with fines and different prison terms, any activity that puts in risk “social peace, the security and independence of the nation, the public moral and public order”. The legislative proposal also punishes “the publication of false information” and publications that put in danger “the interests of the state”.

Unfortunately, allegations of politically motivated firings and suspensions of judicial workers are not a novel event in Venezuela. A year ago, on August 5th 2008, the Interamerican Human Rights Court decided in favor of three judges fired in 2003, who argued that their suspension was motivated by some decisions favoring opposition mayors and governors. The recent removal of judicial workers and the Attorney General’s legislative proposal take place in the context of President Chavez’s recent urge to speed up the passing of “revolutionary laws” in preparation of the rapidly approaching 10th anniversary of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, to be held on December 5, 2009.


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