Arrest in Venezuela raises free speech concerns

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By Andrew Cawthorne
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

CARACAS, VENEZUELA -- Venezuelan authorities have jailed a former state governor and presidential candidate who accused President Hugo Chávez's government of links to subversive groups in Latin America.

The detention of Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, a veteran of the opposition COPEI party but not one of Chávez's most prominent foes, will fuel criticism that the Venezuelan leader is taking his nation down an increasingly dictatorial route.

Picked up at home Monday night, Álvarez joins a list of several dozen Chávez opponents now in jail, living in exile or facing probes in the South American oil-exporting country.

With the political atmosphere heating up before legislative elections in September -- seen as a barometer for a 2012 presidential vote -- Chávez says his opponents are increasingly breaking laws in their desperation to topple him.

A court ordered Álvarez's arrest for conspiracy, spreading false information and inciting hate, judicial officials said.

He governed oil-producing Zulia state in the early 1990s and unsuccessfully ran for the presidency with COPEI in 1993.

Authorities opened an inquiry into Álvarez earlier this month after he gave an interview to pro-opposition TV network Globovision accusing the government of ties to illegal groups.

"The Venezuelan regime has relations with structures that serve narco-trafficking, like [Colombian rebel group] FARC and others which exist in the continent and the world," he said.

The accusations against Álvarez could carry a jail sentence of between two and 16 years, local media said. "I assume the responsibility for the things that I have said and that I do," he told reporters before his arrest.

His lawyer, Omar Estancio, said the arrest order was "disproportional" and "politicized" while COPEI, a Christian Democrat party, called the accusations "absurd."

"The national government, once again using the institutions it has taken over, tries to silence criticism and denunciations by those who do not think like it does," the party said.

Chávez supporters argue that the president is a victim of a U.S.-led campaign of villification, and that he is reversing decades of exploitation in the OPEC member nation with policies for the poor like free clinics and schools.

At the weekend, Chávez said he would not tolerate illegal use of the Internet or media by his opponents.

-- Reuters


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