With the approach of Sunday's recall vote on the rule of populist President Hugo Chávez, the court system has become a major battleground.
Mr. Chávez's opponents charge that court cases brought against opposition figures are meant to repress dissent, and that the government is using a new law to pack the Supreme Court in its favor. Many opponents fear that even if they get more than the 3.8 million votes needed to unseat the president, a challenge by Chávez's supporters would be backed by the court.
At the center of the controversy is Sumate, the group that organized the petition drive to trigger the referendum.
Sumate received a $53,000 grant from the National Endowment for Democracy, which is financed by the US Congress and is designed to promote democracy worldwide. Chávez has a long-running dispute with the White House, which welcomed the April 2002 coup that toppled him for two days. Administration officials have repeatedly criticized his government. In February, Chávez declared that Sumate had committed "betrayal of the fatherland" by accepting Washington's money, and in May, four Sumate officials were charged with conspiracy for accepting the money. Maria Corina Machado, Sumate's vice president, says she believes the government is trying to deter the organization from independently monitoring the recall vote.
The government hopes that "going after some Sumate members may scare the others," Ms. Machado says. "It's definitely hard to work under these conditions."
While Sumate leaders express little sympathy for Chávez, the group has not campaigned for a "yes" vote, leaving that to the opposition parties. Still, the referendum clearly targets Chávez, and foreign governments should not be financing anti-Chávez groups, says Tarik William Saab, a leader of Chávez's Fifth Republic Movement. "If Chávez had sent money to finance groups opposed to the Bush government, [those groups] would have been prosecuted," he says.
Other high-profile cases include that of an opposition mayor who has spent three months in jail on charges that he helped lead a mob attack on the Cuban Embassy during the April 2002 coup. Cuba's Fidel Castro maintains close ties to Chávez. The mayor says he tried to resolve the confrontation peacefully.
Several opposition journalists are also facing legal charges. Patricia Poleo, a television personality and an editor at the the New Nation newspaper, says she has been charged in military court with "inciting military rebellion" for broadcasting a video showing Cubans inside a Venezuelan National Guard outpost. "It's intimidation," says Ms. Poleo.
Late last month, a US State Department spokesman expressed "concern" over reports of prosecution of government opponents. Venezuelan Vice President José Vicente Rangel responded by declaring that Venezuela's judiciary was independent.
But Chávez's critics can point to a scathing June report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in New York. It charged that the "Law of the Supreme Court" passed in April by the pro-Chávez majority in the National Assembly enables the assembly to "pack and purge" the high court. The new law expands the 20-member court by 12 justices and allows the assembly to appoint and remove Supreme Court justices with a simple majority vote, instead of the traditional two-thirds.
The high court had been balanced between Chávez supporters and opponents. In late 2002 it issued a controversial decision absolving four military officers accused of leading the April 2002 coup. But during the run-up to the referendum, it made key rulings in Chávez's favor, including forcing hundreds of thousands of opponents to reconfirm their names on petitions.
The National Assembly has already used its new powers to remove several high-court justices sympathetic to the opposition. Opponents say the government wants to have the court in its corner if the vote's outcome is disputed, and to guarantee that Chávez is allowed to run again if he is recalled. Several polls show Chávez ahead in a close race. Mr. Rangel responded to HRW's report by calling José Miguel Vivanco, its Americas director, a "mercenary" of Washington.
Mark Weisbrot, codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, says that the Supreme Court brought the new law on itself.
"If you had a Supreme Court in the US that ruled that the people who participated in a military coup could not be prosecuted, Congress would impeach those justices," he says. "So I don't think that it's unreasonable that a congress in a democratic country wants to do something similar."
But Henrique Salas Romer, a candidate to replace Chávez if the recall succeeds, says that the Supreme Court law compounds the deterioration of Venezuelan democracy. "It makes it very easy to use the transitory majority the government has to demote or dismiss justices," he says. "That puts the whole judicial system under the threat of political decisions."