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Venezuelan official: Ex-judge 'sold his soul' to the DEA

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
updated 10:47 PM EDT, Thu April 19, 2012
People walk in front of Venezuela's courthouse headquarters in Caracas on April 9, 2012.
People walk in front of Venezuela's courthouse headquarters in Caracas on April 9, 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Ex-judge said the nation's prosecutors had asked him to "orchestrate cases"
  • Venezuela's foreign minister says the ex-judge "sold his soul to the devil"
  • Costa Rican official: The DEA flew Eladio Aponte Aponte to the United States this week
  • Venezuelan officials accuse him of connections with an alleged drug trafficker

(CNN) -- An ex-judge accusing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of manipulating court rulings is a fugitive who "sold his soul to the devil" when he agreed to talk with U.S. investigators, the nation's foreign minister said Thursday.

"People like him will keep being defeated and his lies will be unveiled," Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said.

Eladio Aponte Aponte, who was a Supreme Court justice until the Venezuelan government accused him of connections with an alleged drug trafficker last month, told SOiTV in an interview that aired this week that he made rulings in cases based on requests from Chavez and other top officials.

"They just asked for favors that I complied with. And woe be the judge that refused to cooperate. ... They were dismissed," Aponte Aponte said.

Top Venezuelan authorities were aware of at least one instance in which a military lieutenant was caught transporting cocaine to an army camp -- and made personal phone calls asking the judge to look the other way, Aponte Aponte told the Miami-based TV network.

CNN has not independently confirmed the former justice's accusations.

In recent years, the U.S. Treasury Department has placed several Venezuelan officials, including the nation's current defense minister, on its drug kingpin list.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration flew Aponte Aponte to the United States from Costa Rica early Monday morning, according to the head of the Central American country's intelligence agency.

Mauricio Boraschi said U.S. Embassy officials contacted the Costa Rican government after the former judge -- who had been in Costa Rica for about two weeks -- reached out to officials in Washington.

The U.S. State Department told CNN it could not comment on what it called "this law enforcement matter."

Venezuela's foreign minister criticized the United States for attempting to destabilize his country's government.

"It is easy to understand how a fugitive from justice processed for his connections with drug trafficking mafias and removed from his job has sold his soul to the DEA," Maduro said. "The DEA has appeared again as a political actor in Venezuela against Venezuela."

The DEA has not commented on Aponte Aponte. An agency official who watched portions of the interview that aired on CNN en EspaƱol said it was "very interesting."

The former justice told SOiTV that high-ranking Venezuelan officials were involved in drug trafficking, but declined to say who or offer evidence.

In one instance, Aponte Aponte said, Chavez's office called and asked for the former judge's help after a military lieutenant was caught with cocaine. So did the nation's defense minister and other top officials, Aponte Aponte said.

They said "he was a good guy, that it was the president's order, that the president was very interested in the case," Aponte Aponte said.

The former judge also described weekly meetings in the Venezuelan vice president's office with the president of the Supreme Court, the attorney general and other top officials.

"That is where the directives of the justice system come from. ... They decide what guidelines to follow depending on the political climate," he said.

Aponte Aponte also said the nation's prosecutors participated in extortion and had asked him to "orchestrate cases." The attorney general's office did not respond to requests for comment.

Several of Aponte Aponte's remarks contradicted previous statements by top Venezuelan officials -- including Chavez.

When asked whether there were political prisoners in Venezuela -- something Chavez has previously denied -- Aponte Aponte said yes.

"There are people they ordered not to be released. ... In a nutshell, we had to accept the fact that they were not to be released, so the justice system turned its back on them," he said.

Asked whether he felt that the Venezuelan government had turned against him, Aponte Aponte said, "I think they did that a long time ago. I just didn't realize it."

Venezuelan officials removed Aponte Aponte from his post last month, accusing him of providing a government credential to a man authorities allege was one of the world's top drug lords.

Aponte Aponte, who has not confirmed or denied that accusation, left Venezuela the day he was supposed to face questioning in the Venezuelan National Assembly.

A government ethics commission said the judge had committed "serious misconduct" and a "breach of public ethics" when he allegedly provided a credential to suspected drug trafficker Walid Makled.

Makled is currently on trial in Venezuela, where he is accused of drug trafficking and killing a journalist who was investigating his family. He was extradited to Venezuela from Colombia last year.

The United States designated Makled as one of the world's most significant drug kingpins in May 2009 and had also requested his extradition.

Makled, who denies U.S. accusations of drug trafficking, said in an interview with Venezuela's El Nacional newspaper that he paid millions of dollars to government officials and top military brass so his family's shipping business could operate at some of the nation's largest ports.

"If I am a narcotrafficker, the whole Chavez government is a narcotrafficker," he told the newspaper.

Chavez has strongly denied those accusations and stood up for his government officials.

Maduro said Thursday that Aponte Aponte's removal from office showed that "in Venezuela the laws work. No one is privileged or protected."

Aponte Aponte told SOiTV that his daughter had invited Makled to her wedding, "but we didn't have any idea of the activities of this gentleman. We only knew him as a reputable businessman."

The former judge claimed Venezuelan officials had unfairly used the Makled case to destroy his reputation.

"I am not going to pay for a crime I never committed," Aponte Aponte told SOiTV, but he said he wants to make up for the harm his rulings have caused.

"When I finished packing all my stuff in my office, all my books, I told myself I'd never touch another law book. Justice is nothing, justice is a ball of putty. I say putty because it can be molded, for or against. I didn't want to have anything to do with the law anymore. I said I'd rather have a hotdog stand," he said. "But then, after all my reflection, and I had time to think it over, and after I saw that, that my friends have offered to help me, I now think you need to fight for justice. And that blindfolded lady has to be shown the way."

Saying he felt afraid for his life and betrayed by his colleagues, the former judge said he would go back to Venezuela to face the accusations against him only if officials respect his rights.

"Knowing the system from the inside, and how it works, and how it's handled, I don't think I'd have any rights at all," he said.

CNN's Fernando del Rincon, Ana Maria Luengo-Romero, Jamie Crawford and Terry Frieden contributed to this report.

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