Caracas, Venezuela, December 22, 2005—In two court decisions that highlight the class disparity in the Venezuelan judicial system, three men were convicted of carrying out the 2004 murder of Venezuelan state prosecutor Danilo Anderson, while three others, accused of being the architects of the crime, were released from jail pending trial.
The events are typical of the Venezuelan judicial system, where members of the economic elite are given considerable freedom during their trials, and generally fairly light sentences, while others languish in prison while awaiting their court appearances.
According to Venezuelan human rights group PROVEA, as of April of this year, Venezuela had just shy of 20,000 prisoners, almost half of whom had not been convicted. Though still astronomically high numbers of prisoners are awaiting trial, this is a significant improvement over 1998, the year before the government enacted a new criminal procedure code to reduce the number of pretrial prisoners, when 64% of the country’s almost 25,000 prisoners were awaiting trial.
Nelson Mezerhane, Eugenio Añez Núñez, and Salvador Romaní will not be among the hoards of pre-trial prisoners. Each of them claimed for health reasons they were unable to stay in jail pending trial and were released by Seventh Court Judge Florencio Silano. Prosecutors have another six months to bring the case to trial, according to El Universal.
The president of the National Assembly, Nicolás Maduro responded to the decision, saying, “Decisions like this confirm that in Venezuela there really still are a privileged few that, because of economic and media power, can easily get the good side of the justice system, which, I think, is in really bad shape.”
Attorney General, Isaías Rodriguez, did not appeal the decision, saying that it demonstrated the independence of the judiciary. The Chávez administration is commonly criticized by the Venezuelan opposition and the United States of controlling the courts.
While Añez Núñez, a retired Venezuelan general, and Romaní, an anti-Castro activist, were arrested shortly after being indicted, Mezerhane, partial owner of opposition television station Globovision, was sought by the authorities for a week and a half, before turning himself into the Caracas court last month. He attributed the delayed appearance to being out of the country. Another of the accused conspirators, opposition journalist Patricia Poleo, is still in hiding, and government officials say they believe she has fled the country.
Flight is common among members of the Venezuelan opposition accused of political crimes. In the two best known examples, Pedro Carmona, who declared himself president for two days, escaped house arrest and fled to Colombia. And recently convicted CTV leader Carlos Ortega had fled to Costa Rica, before coming back into Venezuela incognito.
Maduro had previously accused Mezerhane of trying to bribe a judge in the case.
The charges against the four are based in part on the testimony of Giovani José Vásquez De Armas, a member of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, who admits to providing operational support for the bombing. According to Rodriguez, Vásquez De Armas said that the four attended meetings in Panama, Miami, and Maracaibo, where the killing of Anderson was planned. Lawyers of all of the clients have maintained their innocence, calling Vásquez De Armas’ testimony unreliable.
“[Vásquez De Armas] is a Colombian delinquent who has accused us, but with courage and bravery and lots of faith and dignity, we have dealt with this, and will continue to deal with it. We’re innocent,” Añez Núñez told Cadena Global.
The Judge formerly in charge of the case, Alejandra Rivas Aliendres, had said that charges were based on far more than Vásquez De Armas’s testimony and pointed to "12 separate pieces of evidence."
All three of the arrested had been kept in the headquarters of the Venezuelan secret police, DISIP, since their arrest. “I spent 47 days in the DISIP headquarters, and I was treated extremely well. We came to a good understanding, [the DISIP] in their role as officials, and me in my role as retired general,” Añez Núñez told Cadena Global.
Mr. Anderson was murdered in late 2004, while investigating some 400 people, many said to be part of Venezuela’s business elite, for their involvement in the brief April 2002 coup that removed the Venezuelan president from power for two days and dissolved the National Assembly and constitution. A car bomb went off in Mr. Anderson’s SUV about five minutes after he left a university graduate course in Los Chaguaramos, Caracas, according to Venezuela’s scientific police (CICPC).
Unlike their accused intellectual counterparts, those convicted of carrying out the acts for hire were held for over a year during their trial. Two other suspects were killed in shoot-outs when police tried to capture them.
The two of the men convicted today, Rolando and Otoniel Guevara were former police officers. The other, Juan Bautista Guevara, was their cousin. They were each sentenced to over 27 years for detonating the bomb that killed Anderson.
According to Attorney General Rodriguez, the evidence against the men was overwhelming and “any judge would have made the same decision.” The evidence against them included a witness who said that Bautista Guevara and Juan Carlos Sánchez, one of the suspects that was killed in a shoot out, were in the same area as Anderson on the night of the murder; a map in the Guevara brothers house that indicated the route of Anderson; the relationship between the men and known arms dealers; and the testimony of Vásquez De Armas.
The Guevaras have maintained their innocence and accused the Attorney General’s office of being corrupt and of having failed to investigate the speed with which Disip police arrived on the scene. "Evidence seems to have been altered on purpose, with a view to hide the real culprits," said Rolando Guevara.
"The worst part is that Anderson’s murder is still unpunished," said Otoniel Guevara.
Correction: The headline and summary of an earlier version of this article said that there were two convictions, when actually there were three.