Rights group: Chavez using judiciary against foes

President Hugo Chavez is using Venezuela's judiciary to persecute his political opponents, crack down on media critics and curtail the power of labor unions, a prominent human rights organization reported Monday.

In its annual report, Human Rights Watch condemned what it called "the Venezuelan government's domination of the judiciary and its weakening of democratic checks and balances" last year, warning that Chavez's control over judges and prosecutors has led to "a precarious human rights situation."

The New York-based group said "judges may face reprisals if they rule against government interests," noting the arrest of Judge Maria Afiuni shortly after she ordered the release of a high-profile banker who opposed Chavez's government.

Chavez harshly condemned Afiuni's decision to free Eligio Cedeno, who was accused of corruption and fled to Florida soon after his release in late 2009. At the time, the president demanded that Afiuni, who is facing charges of abuse of authority and "favoring evasion of justice," receive the maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

Chavez denies holding sway over the courts, insisting the legal system remains autonomous. Repudiating allegations that his becoming dictatorial, the president argued on Sunday that his effort to steer Venezuela toward socialism has been — and must remain — completely democratic.

"No dictatorship is built upon socialism," Chavez told a thousands of supporters during a rally outside the presidential palace. "Through dictatorship, it's impossible for reach socialism."

Members of the president's ruling party echoed those claims Monday, taking issue with the allegations in Human Rights Watch's report.

"Every single one of the branches of government are independent: the judicial branch, the legislative branch and the executive branch," Silvio Mora, a pro-Chavez lawmaker, said in a phone interview.

"Nobody is persecuted here," he said. "Everyone enjoys total freedom here."

Human Rights Watch criticized what it called efforts to silence the independent media in part by refusing to renew broadcast licenses for dozens of radio stations and RCTV — a stridently anti-Chavez TV channel.

"The government has discriminated against media that air views of political opponents," the report said. It added that Chavez's administration has tried "to limit free speech and created powerful incentives for government critics to self-censor."

But the report also noted that "Venezuela enjoys vibrant public debate in which anti-government and pro-government media are equally vocal."

Human Rights Watch also accused the government of attempting to weaken unions, citing the cases of several labor leaders who have been imprisoned on charges stemming from strikes and protests.

Chavez's political adversaries have long accused the former lieutenant colonel of trampling democratic rights, prompting rebuttals from his allies.

"To say that human rights are violated in Venezuela is wrong," Mora said.