July 5, Venezuela’s Independence Day, came with a precious piece of news for all those who hope for the country’s future: Michele Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for human rights, announced that the Venezuelan judge María Lourdes Afiuni had been released from parole, after almost 10 years of confinement. But her release came with conditions — the judge in charge of her case left in place restrictions that precluded her from traveling abroad and limited her freedom of speech. Judge Afiuni was liberated along with a journalist, Braulio Jatar, and 20 other political prisoners. Thus, one of Hugo Chávez’s most arbitrary acts has finally been reversed.
Ms. Afiuni had remained in prison without trial for more than a year. Her crime had been to remand a banker, Eligio Cedeno, who himself had been jailed for more than a year without a trial, to supervised parole; the court demanded his passport and he had to report weekly to the judge. Instead, the banker fled the country and the judge was accused of “corruption, abuse of authority, aiding escape and association to commit crime.” In the women’s prison where she was confined, she suffered sexual and psychological abuse (death threats from inmates she had sentenced) and her health was seriously compromised.
Among many who sought to liberate Ms. Afiuni, we conducted direct negotiations with the Chávez government to press for her release. When the judge’s health was in jeopardy, she was granted house arrest. In the end she was put on parole, but for years no definite sentence ended the nightmare she had to endure. So we received the news of her release with a mixed reaction, because although it’s a step in the right direction, it was delayed far too long and is incomplete. The dire suffering of a brave and resilient woman of the law should have never occurred.
After years of protracted political confrontation in Venezuela, making María Lourdes Afiuni’s release fully unconditional would be an important step. But an estimated 590 people remain detained as she was, without trial, for political reasons and under harsh circumstances.
All of this makes now the right time for Nicolás Maduro to free all political prisoners. Venezuela is facing the most severe humanitarian collapse in Latin America’s recent history, a result of years of steady political deterioration, an economic meltdown accompanied by almost total international isolation and crushing United States economic sanctions. As a result, four million Venezuelans have fled their country, creating stress and havoc in neighboring countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Peru.
Releasing prisoners was a cornerstone decision in the resolution of the decades-long Northern Ireland conflict that tore the social fabric of that part of the world. It led to the recognition of the political nature of the conflict, no matter how bloody, and in the end opened up an opportunity for a peace agreement and the normalization of the political situation. Mr. Maduro seemingly finds himself at a similar juncture, at which he could act decisively and break the stalemate that has marked earlier attempts at political solutions in Venezuela.
The role taken by the United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner in assessing the human rights situation in Venezuela may be an opportunity for a negotiated solution to take place after failed attempts to foster political dialogue between Mr. Maduro’s government and the opposition. Recent meetings in Norway, Sweden and Barbados could provide a way toward free and fair elections that would solve the country’s political gridlock. The ball has begun to roll, and for those like us who worked on the Afiuni case, it is clear that the best possible solution would be a political settlement that leads to a transitional period in which democratic institutions can be restored, the humanitarian crisis stopped and the economic crisis reversed, allowing Venezuela to get back on its feet.
The release of Ms. Afiuni is something to celebrate, and we do so wholeheartedly. But it could also lead to a more solid path toward a political solution in Venezuela. We encourage Mr. Maduro to liberate all political prisoners, both military and civilian. This next big decision would show the world that he and the leadership accompanying him are ready to advance in the restoration of the Venezuelan nation. Internally, it would involve a huge leap that could encourage skeptical opposition leaders to seek a negotiated solution among Venezuelans. It could be a critical moment for free and fair elections as the solution to one of the most significant political conundrums of recent times in the Americas.