I was very pleased to hear the news that my former client and friend, the Venezuelan businessman and former political prisoner Eligio Cedeño, was granted the status of political asylum by a U.S. Immigration Court. The journey that brought Eligio to the safety of his new home was long, painful, and arduous, after having been unlawfully jailed for nearly three years at the headquarters of the DISIP, Venezuela’s secret police. He was wrongly accused of a fraudulent currency exchange perpetuated by other parties (including government officials), a charge which was completely unable to stand up in court (his first trial was cancelled on the evening of the verdict that was set to exonerate him, and had languished ever since on the personal political orders of the President).
After a United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared his detention illegal, a brave and courageous judge named Maria Lourdes Afiuni ordered his release shortly before Christmas 2009, and subsequently was jailed and savagely condemned on national TV by President Hugo Chavez. She continues to this day as one of the country’s most visible political prisoners. The only consolation we can take in terms of Afiuni’s tragic case is that this Immigration Court’s ruling on political asylum further reinforces that she performed her duties to the letter of the law.
Today I can only express my relief and congratulations to Eligio and his family, and hope that this sense of security may some day be felt by the many other victims of the repressive authoritarian state Chavez has created in Venezuela.
Here’s a bit of coverage of Cedeño’s asylum status from the Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Cedeño applied for asylum in the U.S. last year, on the grounds that he had a credible fear he would be persecuted based on his political opinions and activities in Venezuela. His lawyer said Mr. Cedeño financed opposition leaders who were a threat to Mr. Chavez.
“The decision is objective proof that Eligio Cedeño was a political prisoner,” said Victor Cerda, his immigration attorney. “Contrary to President Chavez’s assertions, he is not a criminal.” (…)
His case gave ammunition to Mr. Chavez’s opponents arguing that Venezuelan courts were at the service of the president.
The matter took a strange twist in 2009 when Judge Maria Afiuni ruled Mr. Cedeño should be freed pending trial.
Mr. Chavez soon after went on national television and said measures should be taken against the judge. He said that she had likely been bribed to release Mr. Cedeño and that she should be sentenced to 30 years in jail.
Ms. Afiuni, who has denied the charges, was then jailed, prompting criticism of Mr. Chavez and the Venezuelan judiciary by human-rights groups. Ms. Afiuni is now under house arrest awaiting trial on corruption charges, including abuse of power and complicity in a prison escape.
“His case shows there is no justice system left in Venezuela under Chavez,” said Robert Amsterdam, a London-based lawyer who was on a legal team that tried to secure Mr. Cedeño’s release.