Lawyers in Venezuela need support from their colleagues elsewhere.
In which country on earth would a woman lawyer have to say to her young son travelling with her in the car ‘lie down on the floor – I think we’re going to be shot at’?
In which country would lawyers who are attending a human rights conference in another country be denounced on national TV by the Chair of the National Assembly (‘lying about their country abroad’), and be afraid to bring back conference material in their luggage for fear of the consequences?
In which country would a trip in the country of the conference be organised for the lawyers to the local shopping mall so that they can stock up on toilet paper, shampoo, razor blades and other necessities no longer available at home (it has the highest inflation rate in the world)?
I will give you a clue. It came a clear bottom of the World Justice Project’s 2015 Rule of Law index, which ranks countries according to a range of factors such as government powers, absence of corruption, order and security, and regulatory enforcement.
No, it is not Afghanistan. Welcome to Venezuela, folks. For fear of something worse, lawyers have been forced into exile for representing government opponents. The signature victim of the justice system is judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni. She released a businessman who had been held in pre-trial detention for a year longer than Venezuelan law allows.
The president at the time, Hugo Chavez, called her a ‘bandit’, welcomed her arrest, and said: ‘A judge who frees a criminal is much, much, much more serious than the criminal himself. This judge should get the maximum penalty… 30 years in prison. That judge has to pay for what she has done.’ And pay she has.
According to her lawyer, she was raped while in prison, fell pregnant and had an abortion. Her case has now become a cause célèbre, and her ongoing trial attracts international observers. Venezuelan lawyers have had to become used to a system which is so shocking that it is difficult to believe that it exists on the same planet as ours.
The human rights conference in which the lawyers participated took place in Guatemala, itself no shining light. It has had to overcome the inheritance of a 36-year civil war, which ended only 19 years ago. There are children under the age of puberty working in the streets, shining shoes and selling trinkets. It is a violent country. But Guatemala is trying to escape from its past. One of its most serious problems is impunity.
About 1% of murders are solved – 1%! It has set up an organisation called CICIG, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala.
CICIG’s mandate has many of the attributes of an international prosecutor, but operates under Guatemalan law, in the local courts, and follows local Guatemalan procedures. It carries out independent investigations into the activities of illegal security groups and clandestine security structures. This is the kind of institution that Venezuela needs, as a minimum on its road to recovery.
Unfortunately, this is extremely unlikely under the current Venezuelan government.
The conference also heard about a UN institution which is not well-known. There is a UN rapporteur for many things, and so it is fitting that there should also be one on the situation of human rights defenders. The current post holder is Michel Forst, a French national. His office has just carried out a survey on good practices in the protection of human rights defenders, and will soon publish a report.
You will not be surprised to learn that Venezuela has not replied to four requests for visits by the UN rapporteur over the last few years.
I know it is difficult for us to summon up interest in a country so far away, with little historical connection to our own. We have our own problems, as the horrifying events in Paris last week have shown. But we live a charmed life, in a stable and democratic system, whatever our difficulties.
The lawyers at the conference are brave citizens, committed to international standards, such as accountability, fair trials and the basic requirements of the rule of law. Support from their colleagues in other countries is a lifeline to them, to show them that we know and care about their terrible predicament, and will help them if we can.
Jonathan Goldsmith is a consultant and former secretary-general at the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs