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Luisa Estela Morales

The Constitutional Chamber of Venezuela’s Supreme Court annuled the decision that let four military organizers of the April 2002 coup go free. This means that they can now be charged with military rebellion.

Luisa Estela Morales, the president of the court’s constitutional chamber, read a declartion yesterday, explaining that, “This decision was made following the verification of the grotesque violation of the constitutional principles and rights consecrated in the constitution.”

On August 14, 2002, Venezuela’s full Supreme Court had decided to dismiss the charges against four military officers, Army General Efraín Vásquez Velasco, Air Force General Pedro Pereira, Vice-Admiral Héctor Ramírez Pérez, and Rear Admiral Daniel Comisso Urdaneta. The dismissal had caused an uproar among Chavez supporters, who argued that the court was in the hands of the opposition and that the decision rewarded the officers with impunity.

Now that the decision has been nullified, the Attorney General is free to pursue new charges against the officers, but this time they can be tried as civilians, since they have all been retired from the military. Venezuela’s constitution specifies that high ranking officers must receive a pre-trial hearing in front of the full Supreme Court before charges can be filed against them.

At the time, the court’s judges were evenly divided between Chavez supporters and opponents, but the court had ruled 11-9 to dismiss the charges because two judges had been recused from the case, thus barely tipping the balance of power in favor of the opposition. A key element in yesterday’s decision was that these recusations were conducted improperly, thus creating an irregularly constituted full Supreme Court. Venezuelan legal experts had been debating for some time as to whether the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court, which consists of five chambers altogether, could review decisions of the full court. According to yesterday’s ruling, it is the constitutional chamber’s prerogative to review the constitutionality of all courts in the country, including that of the full Supreme Court.

Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez, who had filed the motion for the constitutional chamber to nullify the August 2002 decision, said that taking the officers to court again would not violate prohibitions against trying someone for the same crime twice, since the original decision was a pre-trial hearing and not an actual trial. Vice-President José Vicente Rangel, issued a communiqué in which he said that the decision “on the one hand vindicates the historical truth and, on the other hand, vindicates the rule of law.” The original decision that absolved the officers, “was a true assault on democratic legality, committed by a group of judges who proceeded to embarrassingly serve interests that were contrary to justice,” said Rangel.

Carlos Bastidas, the lawyer for the four military officers charges with organizing the coup, said that he would take his clients’ case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission because the nullification represented a “serious blow against the rule of law.” According to Bastidas, “it is obvious that all legal avenues are closed.” Opposition leader Antonio Ledezma, of the party Brave People’s Alliance, said that he would file a case with the Supreme Court, asking for a revision of the sentence that dismissed the charges against President Chavez for the coup attempt he made in 1992, against then-President Carlos Andrés Perez. Ledezma said he would use the same arguments as the court used in nullifying the decision that freed the 2002 coup organizers. That case, however, was not the result of a pre-trial hearing because the previous constitution did not provide for pre-trials in cases against military officers, as the 1999 constitution does.