LOS TEQUES, Venezuela — When Judge María Lourdes Afiuni issued a ruling in December that irked President Hugo Chávez, he did little to contain his outrage. The president, contending on national television that she would have been put before a firing squad in earlier times, sent his secret intelligence police to arrest her.
The family of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni built a home shrine to her after she was jailed by President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who was angered by a ruling.
Franklin Brito, who has protested the government’s handling of a land seizure, staged hunger strikes before and after his arrest.
Then the agents took her to the overcrowded women’s prison in this city of slums near Caracas. They put her in a cell near more than 20 inmates whom Judge Afiuni had sentenced on charges like murder and drug smuggling.
“I’ve received threats from inmates telling me they will burn me alive because they see me as a symbol of the system that put them in prison,” said Judge Afiuni, 46, in her prison cell. “I’m in this hell because I had the temerity to do my job as a judge in a way that didn’t please Chávez.”
Since Judge Afiuni’s imprisonment, a dizzying sequence of other high-profile arrests has taken place, pointing to Mr. Chávez’s recent use of his security and intelligence apparatus to quash challenges to his grip on the country’s political institutions. The arrests come at a time of spreading public ire over an economy hobbled by electricity shortages and soaring inflation.
Senior officials in Mr. Chávez’s government here, including Attorney General Luisa Ortega, say the most recent arrests were necessary to suppress conspiracies or to prosecute people whose comments were deemed offensive to Mr. Chávez. In Judge Afiuni’s case, Attorney General Ortega said the judge had illegally freed another high-profile prisoner, the businessman Eligio Cedeño.
In March, intelligence agents arrested Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, a former presidential candidate, charging him with conspiracy after he said in televised remarks that Venezuela had become a haven for drug trafficking; he also supported a Spanish indictment asserting that officials here had helped Basque separatists train on Venezuelan soil.
Only days later, agents arrested Guillermo Zuloaga, the owner of the opposition television network Globovisión, after he criticized the government’s efforts to shut down media outlets that challenged the president. After an outcry by rights groups, Mr. Zuloaga was released on the condition that he could not travel outside the country.
Next, agents arrested Wilmer Azuaje, an opposition lawmaker, on charges of insulting and striking a police official during a heated discussion. Mr. Azuaje had in the past revealed corruption claims against Mr. Chávez’s siblings. Like Mr. Zuloaga, Mr. Azuaje was released, but the Supreme Court forbade him to discuss his arrest with the media.
The arrests have taken aim at some of Mr. Chávez’s most prominent critics ahead of legislative elections in September that put control of the National Assembly in play, and they illustrate Mr. Chávez’s attempts to tighten control over institutions like the judiciary.
Judge Afiuni, previously an obscure jurist, quickly rose to prominence when she freed Mr. Cedeño, a businessman jailed on charges of circumventing currency controls. The imprisonment of Mr. Cedeño, who had previously financed opposition politicians, was explicitly criticized last year by a panel of United Nations legal experts after his pretrial detention exceeded the limits set by Venezuelan law.
Judge Afiuni contended that she was following United Nations guidance when she released Mr. Cedeño, who subsequently fled to the United States. But Mr. Chávez immediately claimed that she had been bribed to release Mr. Cedeño, demanding that she be jailed for 30 years, even if new laws were needed to keep her in prison that long.
“The corruption charges are false, and prosecutors know that by looking at all of my banking records,” Judge Afiuni said. “But the damage to me has been done.”
Prosecutors overseeing Judge Afiuni’s case did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Criticism of her imprisonment from fellow judges in Venezuela has also been relatively muted, a reaction that is not entirely surprising because Mr. Chávez and his loyalists in the National Assembly stripped the Supreme Court of its autonomy in 2004.
Outside Venezuela, criticism of her arrest has been more vocal. United Nations legal experts called for her immediate release. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said her arrest came within a political system already under stress because of a lack of judicial independence. Independent human rights group have assailed Mr. Chávez’s government over the arrest.
“It is not the sort of thing that happens in a functioning democracy, in which judicial institutions offer safeguards for rule of law,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch.
Still, there appear to be relatively few political prisoners in Venezuelan jails, legal experts here say. Twenty to 30 Venezuelans, including Judge Afiuni, are now imprisoned here because of their political activity or for reasons connected to publicly contradicting Mr. Chávez’s wishes, said Rocío San Miguel, a legal scholar here who leads a nongovernmental group that monitors Venezuelan security.
The high-profile prisoners also include Raúl Isaías Baduel, a former defense minister, and Franklin Brito, a biologist arrested at around the same time as Judge Afiuni and put under guard in a military hospital after refusing to end a hunger strike over the government’s handling of the seizure of his farmland by squatters.
While Judge Afiuni’s case has raised concern over the erosion of judicial independence, the most recent arrests are stoking fears about freedom of expression.
“The government is fraudulently inventing conspiracies, assassination plots and national emergencies,” said Mr. Álvarez Paz, the former presidential candidate, who was charged with conspiracy after his televised remarks. He is now being detained in a holding cell at the headquarters of the intelligence police. He responded to written questions submitted through his lawyer. “It is doing so out of nervousness over the precarious decline in the president’s credibility at home and abroad,” he said.
Judge Afiuni said she followed news of the other arrests from a small television in her cell that received a state network signal. She also gets updates from her 17-year-old daughter, who visits twice a week. Otherwise, she remains in her cell and reads, most recently a biography of the Dalai Lama, fearful of venturing into other areas of the prison.
One respite from her life in jail, she said, came when the rehearsal sounds from a prison orchestra of inmates traveled past the bars of her cell. She said its rendition of Vivaldi could move her close to tears. “Just when I cannot stand it any longer here,” she said, “the music lets me escape from reality a little and remember that this nightmare will end someday.”
María Eugenia Díaz contributed reporting.