Hugo Chávez's treatment of his opponents will come under renewed scrutiny this week at the trial of a woman judge who was arrested for handing down a ruling that angered the Venezuelan leader, and was then allegedly raped while behind bars.
Maria Lourdes Afiuni's case has become a rallying point for human rights campaigners who accuse President Chavez's government of abuses. Noam Chomsky, the American linguist and political activist often cited by the veteran Socialist leader as a source of inspiration, is among those who have called for Ms Afiuni, 49, to be freed.
The saga began in 2009 when the judge granted bail to a banker facing trial on charges of subverting the nation's currency controls. Angered by the move, the government had her arrested. Mr Chavez – who yesterday announced he was returning to Cuba for more medical treatment following his cancer therapy there – ranted on national television that she should face 30 years in prison for making the ruling. The President, who was elected in October to a fourth, six-year term in office, also called the judge a "bandit".
Ms Afiuni, who has been in pre-trial dentition for nearly three years, latterly under house arrest, has repeatedly protested her innocence and refuses to co-operate with prosecutors or appear in court. A new criminal code, which allows for defendants to be prosecuted in absentia, could allow her trial to begin as early as today.
A book published last week claimed that, in addition to being wrongly imprisoned, Ms Afiuni was raped in a women's jail near the capital, Caracas, in 2010 and then had an abortion. The account was confirmed by her lawyer, who claimed Mr Chavez was informed of the rape but took no action.
"Neither the President personally, nor the government, did anything," Jose Amalio Graterol told The New York Times. "The mistreatment of Ms Afiuni continued." He said she was cut with blades and burnt with cigarette butts. The rape was not made public earlier for fear that doing so would be psychologically harmful to Ms Afiuni, he said, adding that the decision to reveal it now was an act of courage.
Another of Ms Afiuni's lawyers, Thelma Fernandez, demanded an investigation to identify those responsible for the rape. She reiterated that the government was informed about the incident, and details were also conveyed to the UN, the Associated Press reported.
Officials in Caracas have denied the claims in the book The Commandante's Prisoner by Francisco Olivares, a Venezuelan journalist who worked with Ms Afiuni's co-operation. Isabel Gonzalez, a former director of the prison where the judge was held, has called for an inquiry into the claims, which she denies. She also plans to sue for libel.
As the Afiuni case comes to trial, opposition politicians are compiling a list of prisoners they believe have been wrongly detained, and of exiles they say should be allowed to return home. On Friday, Congressman Edgar Zambrano said the list ran to 22 prisoners and 87 exiles.