The High Price of Crossing Hugo
Judge Monica Fernandez, a Venezuelan human rights advocate, was shot on January 4 in what police ruled a botched car robbery. The night before, she was branded an enemy of the state on state television. Coincidence? Thor Halvorssen doesn't think so.
January 21, 2008 - 1:30 am
On January 4, Monica Fernandez, a Venezuelan jurist with a track record for human rights advocacy, and her fianc√©e Javier Herrera, went shopping for plants and flowers in a nursery near her home in Caracas.
As they were loading her car, she noticed two men park nearby in a brand new Mercedes Benz. They began walking toward her and each pulled out a gun. One of the men told her to give him her car keys and to get into the passenger seat. After closing her door he got into the driver’s seat. “Please, take the car, please be calm, take everything,” she pleaded. He said to her “shut your mouth you dirty bitch” and put the gun to her temple.
Fernandez believes she was to be executed. “I lunged forward and ducked” she told me. She did not hear the gunshot but felt the sharp pain of the bullet in her back. The bullet hit her spine and bounced off into the other side of her back.
Judge Fernandez’s fianc√©e, a municipal police officer, was outside of the car, held at gunpoint by the other man. Mr. Herrera had his standard issue weapon and defended himself. He killed the man in front of him but before he could save Judge Fernandez the man in the driver’s seat fired twelve rounds, hitting Mr. Herrera five times, before speeding off with the car and Judge Fernandez. The driver panicked, realizing his accomplice was dead and his gun had run out of bullets repelling Mr. Herrera. He dropped Judge Fernandez off near a freeway and abandoned the car with her purse and checkbook in the passenger seat. Mr. Herrera’s actions saved his fiancee’s life.
Within three hours and before an investigation had concluded, the head of the forensic police department, controlled by the ministry of justice, declared the shootings a botched car robbery.
Fernandez was rushed to the hospital. Within hours, the Venezuelan Information Minister, Andres Izarra, had called Judge Fernandez in her hospital room to express that the government, and especially president Hugo Chavez, were concerned about her well-being.
Really? The night before she was shot, Judge Fernandez was the target of a television program called “La Hojilla” (The Razor) used by the government as its public pillory. It is on La Hojilla that the party faithful and the media learns who is in and who is out of Chavez’s favor. In a studio adorned with portraits of Lenin, Mao, Marx, Stalin, and Che Guevara, the program’s host, Mario Silva, attacks all of those who disagree or oppose the government’s actions. From Tony Blair to human rights groups like HRF and Freedom House, the government-funded program is ruthless. On January 4, Judge Fernandez was the mark and her image appeared as viewers were reminded that she is an enemy of the state, a coup-plotter, and a fascist.
Judge Fernandez’s troubles with the Venezuelan government began in April of 2002. A criminal court judge, she had avoided most of the politicization affecting the Venezuelan judiciary. She found herself in a political tempest after President Chavez was removed from office by his own defense minister in April of 2002. A group of civilians from the opposition carried out a coup and appointed themselves the new government. In the confusion that gripped Venezuela, Judge Fernandez received a request for a search warrant from a local prosecutor and police department. The neighbors of what was thought to be an abandoned house had reported seeing unusual activities inside the house: they told police they saw a man moving boxes, assault rifles, and bullet proof vests. Judge Fernandez issued the warrant. Inside the house, the police located Ramon Rodriguez, the Chavez government’s Minister of Justice, who had been hiding out during the coup.
Judge Fernandez did not order his arrest but rather sent him to his home with a police escort. The country was in disarray and nobody knew what would happen next. Chavez returned to power several hours later and Rodriguez subsequently resigned. Fernandez, however, was now considered an enemy of the state.
She continued as judge until February of 2005 when she resigned, stating that the Venezuelan judiciary had become entirely politicized and subservient to the whims of the Executive branch. After her resignation, she was accused of falsely arresting Rodriguez. Judge Fernandez had never issued an arrest order, simply a search warrant.
The case never went to trial but, like in so many cases in the Venezuelan judiciary under Chavez, the charges serve as a Damocles Sword over those accused, leaving them in legal limbo. Charges are never finalized, trials are never commenced. Instead, those affected are usually prevented from leaving the country and subjected to dozens of procedural meetings. This permits the government to keep the number of political prisoners to a minimum while having the effect of exhausting and ultimately emasculating political opponents. More than four hundred people have been charged for political crimes that have never gone to trial.
Undaunted, Judge Fernandez became a human rights advocate and one of the leaders of the Foro Penal Venezolano, an entity that labors to free Venezuela’s political prisoners. She began working for the New York-based Human Rights Foundation in July of 2006 as director of research in Venezuela.
Since she began her human rights work, Judge Fernandez has been the frequent target of death threats. In one instance, a friendly lawyer told her to lower her profile. In another, a councilman announced that he had obtained a hit list and her name was on it. Since she began her work for the Human Rights Foundation she has compiled thousands of pages of documents pertaining to cases of political prisoners as well as many who have been persecuted. She also appeared frequently on television explaining the law to a citizenry often confused by a constitution that the government stretches to justify all sorts of abuses. Her human rights work has been invaluable.
On New Year’s Day, President Chavez declared amnesty for a limited number of his political opponents charged with crimes ranging from rebellion to conspiracy. Judge Fernandez’s case involving Ramon Rodriguez was one of them. She immediately took to the airwaves to denounce a number of other cases that had not been amnestied and to point out the discriminatory nature of the decree. She speculated that the amnesty was a smokescreen to cover up the disastrous mission in Colombia by President Chavez to free the hostages in the hands of the FARC terrorist organization.
One day before Judge Fernandez was shot, President Chavez announced some changes in the cabinet and appointed a new Minister of Justice with control over all national police: Ramon Rodriguez.
We do not know if the attack on Judge Fernandez was linked to the incitements made by Mario Silva on Venezuelan government television, to the return of Ramon Rodr√≠guez to the Ministry of Justice, or to Judge Fernandez’s human rights advocacy.
However, in line with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the Venezuelan government is obliged to condemn, investigate, and punish promptly and thoroughly attacks, threats, or intimidation of human rights defenders.
We will not be holding our breath for any such resolution in this case.
Thor Halvorssen is a film producer and human rights advocate. He is president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation .