After scathing report, Venezuela releases judge, students

Geneva: A Venezuelan court has released 22 people, including judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni and journalist Braulio Jatar, a day after a scathing report pointed to extrajudicial killings and torture of political activists in the country.

Afiuni, who was arrested nine years ago without a warrant, confirmed her release on Twitter.

Venezuelan judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni has been released.Credit:AP/File

Jatar and a lawyer for Afiuni said they had not yet received official notices from the judiciary and still had restrictions on their freedom. Twenty students also were among those released, according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and her office.

The news came after the UN Human Rights Council held a debate on Bachelet's report of a visit to Venezuela in June.

The report accused Venezuelan security forces of sending death squads to murder young men and counted such 5300 killings last year, but a vice minister rejected that in a speech to the Geneva forum on Friday.

People hold placards that spell out in Spanish: “No more torture” during an opposition protest against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Friday.Credit:AP

"The welcome releases of 62 detainees then [in June], with a further 22 – including journalist Braulio Jatar and judge [Maria] Lourdes Afiuni – set free yesterday and the authorities' acceptance of two human rights officers in the country, signify the beginning of positive engagement on the country's many human rights issues," Bachelet said.

A spokeswoman said Bachelet had requested the 22 releases directly to leftist President Nicolas Maduro.

Afiuni was jailed shortly after former president Hugo Chavez criticised one of her rulings releasing a businessman accused of corruption.

Prosecutors accused Afiuni of taking bribes to free Eligio Cedeno. She denied the charges, insisting she released Cedeno because he had been awaiting trial for longer than allowed by law.

A woman with her eyes painting with red tears participates in an opposition protest against torture and President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Venezuela’s Independence Day.Credit:AP

Afiuni later said she was raped while in jail and was denied health treatment by authorities. Ruling Socialist Party leaders rejected those allegations as a hoax to gain sympathy but she was later granted house arrest.

She received a five-year sentence in March and had been serving house arrest.

Juan Carlos Goitia, a lawyer representing Afiuni, said that while the ruling eliminated the need for her to appear regularly before a judge, she was still barred from leaving the country.

Jatar, a prominent journalist and lawyer jailed on Venezuela’s Margarita island, was arrested after publicising a protest against Maduro and accused of money-laundering in September 2016. He said on Twitter that he had been verbally informed that he would be required to appear before a judge every 15 days and would be barred from leaving the state where he resides.

"When this announcement becomes effective, this release will be a partial and conditional freedom," Jatar wrote, adding that he expected to receive formal notification on Monday and would provide more details then. Friday was a national holiday in Venezuela for independence day celebrations.

A tank drives past during a Venezuela Independence Day military parade in Caracas.Credit:Bloomberg

Maduro oversaw a grand military parade to mark the day, revelling in his might as commander-in-chief despite scathing criticism of his administration at home and abroad.

He applauded and pumped his fist as soldiers marched past, tanks rolled by and fighter jets streaked overhead at a Caracas military base. A unit of camouflaged special forces, guns drawn, shouted their loyalty as they paraded by the presidential reviewing stand.

"We look to the heavens, asking for peace," Maduro said. "All the while our military exercises play out. We plead to God with our missiles pointed."

The parade served as a demonstration of Maduro's continuing support from the military amid the political standoff with opposition leader Juan Guaido, who has support of about 50 countries to to oust Maduro and govern as interim president.

Members of the National Bolivarian Militia march with government issue food distribution boxes, known by the Spanish acronym CLAP, during a Venezuela Independence Day military parade in Caracas.Credit:Bloomberg

The Supreme Court said on Twitter that a court had "revised" Jatar's case, without saying whether it had reached a decision on his freedom. It added that another court had "agreed to end the precautionary measures" in Afiuni's case, a reference to her house arrest.

It was not immediately clear why the 20 students had been in custody.

"We are really happy about the liberation of Afiuni and Jatar; they should never have been in jail. And we hope this liberation continues," Miguel Pizarro, a member of Venezuela's National Assembly, told reporters in Geneva.

Pizarro was accused of treason by the top court in May along with three other opposition lawmakers. Pizarro said he had lived in "safe houses" since then before coming to Europe to lobby the UN and parliaments.

He called for assembly vice president Edgar Zambrano and opposition lawmaker Juan Requesens to be released as well.

"Everything we can do to get a fair and free election to get a new president and a new government in Venezuela, we have to try it – demonstrations, negotiations, sanctions, international pressure, people in the street," Pizarro said.

Reuters, AP

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