Ex-judge: Venezuelan officials meddled in cases

A fired judge's allegations that high-ranking officials in President Hugo Chavez's government and military manipulate Venezuela court cases were dismissed Thursday by the country's foreign minister, who said the ex-judge isn't credible because he was removed for alleged ties to a prominent drug suspect.

Former Supreme Court Magistrate Eladio Aponte is a fugitive now in the United States and has clear links to drug traffickers, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said a day after a television channel aired an interview in which the judge made his allegations.

"He's an absolutely discredited man," Maduro told reporters. "He's an ex-magistrate being prosecuted for his links to drug trafficking, and who has sold his soul to the devil."

Aponte said in the interview shown Wednesday night by the television channel SOiTV that Chavez's office as well as top military officers asked him to be lenient in the case of a lieutenant arrested with a shipment of cocaine. He said those who contacted him included then-Defense Minister Raul Baduel and intelligence chiefs Gen. Henry Rangel Silva and Gen. Hugo Carvajal.

"That's the only case that I remember in which I've favored a drug trafficker," Aponte said.

He was dismissed by Venezuela's National Assembly on March 20 over accusations that he had ties to drug suspect Walid Makled. Aponte was accused of providing Makled, who is now jailed in Venezuela, with an official identification card.

Aponte said he wasn't sure whether he had provided Makled with such a card, but acknowledged knowing Makled and said he had signed off on many such cards. He said he thought Makled was a reputable businessman.

Makled, who faces murder, drug trafficking and money laundering charges, has claimed that he paid millions of dollars to government officials and military officers. The government has strongly denied his allegations.

Aponte left Venezuela and traveled to Costa Rica earlier this month. The date and location of the TV interview weren't clear, but the television channel said it was filmed outside Venezuela.

The interview was shown a day after Costa Rican officials said the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration flew Aponte from the Central American country to the United States. Mauricio Boraschi, Costa Rica's deputy security minister and intelligence director, said the ex-judge had entered Costa Rica as a tourist and left Tuesday after discussions with the DEA, about which he didn't offer details.

The Venezuelan foreign minister, whose socialist government has long been at odds with the United States, said Aponte "has sold his soul to the DEA."

"The DEA now takes away this man accused of being linked to drug traffickers' mafias to turn him into a spokesman against Venezuela," Maduro said. "The United States continues to become a sanctuary for drug traffickers, corrupt people, traitors, terrorists."

In Washington, Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney and DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden declined to comment on Aponte.

It was unclear what sort of information Aponte might provide to U.S. authorities.

During the interview, he said: "Why am I speaking now? ... I was unjustly betrayed. I was unjustly humiliated."

Asked if he had received any calls from government officials seeking to manipulate court cases, Aponte answered: "Sure, from the president on down."

He said that when he worked as a military prosecutor and later as a Supreme Court magistrate, he received calls from officials including Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega and Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales seeking to intervene in cases.

Aponte said Chavez had personally contacted him about one case when he was a military prosecutor, urging him to carry out an investigation that would favor the government's stance.

He said Chavez was interested in a 2004 case in which 118 Colombians were arrested at a ranch outside Caracas and accused of plotting to destabilize the country and assassinate the president. He said Chavez wanted him "to carry out the investigations showing that was something against the government."

Most of the Colombians were later freed, and Chavez in 2007 pardoned the 41 remaining Colombians who had been charged with military rebellion.

Aponte accused various officials of holding sway over the Venezuelan justice system. He said there is a weekly meeting at which the vice president talks with the Supreme Court president, the chief prosecutor and other officials.

The meeting is "where the guidelines come out regarding what justice is going to be," said Aponte, who did not present evidence of his accusations.

Chavez and other officials have previously denied claims by critics of undue government influence over the judiciary.

Maduro defended Venezuela's legal authorities, saying they lead "absolutely honest" institutions. He said the handling of Aponte's case and his dismissal show that in Venezuela "the laws work, that there are no privileged people nor protected people from drug trafficking mafias."


Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.