Latin America & Caribbean

Venezuela judge Maria Afiuni moved to house arrest

A Venezuelan judge whose imprisonment has been criticised by international human rights groups has been moved to house arrest.

Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni is suffering from cancer and needs surgery.

She was locked up more than a year ago after President Hugo Chavez accused her of corruption for freeing a banker accused of breaking currency controls.

Human rights groups say her case highlights concerns about the independence of Venezuela's judiciary.

The Venezuelan authorities say her detention is legitimate given suspicions surrounding the man she freed, banker Eligio Cedeno, who jumped bail and fled to the US.

Judge Afiuni says she acted in accordance with the law when she released Mr Cedeno, because he had been in jail for three years without trial, exceeding legal limits.

She was arrested in December 2009 after President Chavez publicly criticised her decision and demanded she be jailed for at least 30 years.

Political prisoner?

Ms Afiuni's lawyer, Jose Amalio Graterol, welcomed the attorney-general's decision to allow her out of jail because of ill health while the case against her proceeds.

"They realised they were carrying out a death sentence against her," he told reporters.

The BBC's Sarah Grainger in Caracas says moving the judge from prison to house arrest is a small victory for her legal team, who are still waiting to hear when her case might go to trial.

Opposition groups regard Judge Afiuni as a political prisoner, and say her case is one of several where President Chavez's government has over-ruled judicial process to persecute its opponents.

But Mr Chavez and his supporters say there are no political prisoners in Venezuela, and accuse the opposition of manipulating legitimate cases to discredit the government.

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