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News (Media Awareness Project) - Venezuela: Chavez Foe Convicted Over Remarks
Title:Venezuela: Chavez Foe Convicted Over Remarks
Published On:2011-07-15
Source:Wall Street Journal (US)
Fetched On:2011-07-16 06:00:45

CARACAS - A Venezuelan statesman and possible challenger to Hugo
Chavez's presidential re-election bid was convicted of publicly saying
the country has turned into a drug-trafficking center, in what
human-rights groups say is a government tactic to silence its foes
through the country's judiciary.

Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, 68 years old, was convicted of spreading false
information because he said last year on a television program that
Venezuela "facilitates the business of drug trafficking."

Mr. Alvarez Paz, a Christian Democrat, was for many years one of the
country's most prominent politicians, and served as governor of
economic powerhouse Zulia state as well as president of the nation's
lower house of congress.

Mr. Alvarez Paz was sentenced to two years in prison, but won't serve
time due to Venezuelan legal regulations. Last year, Mr. Alvarez Paz
spent two months in prison awaiting trial on the charges, but he was
eventually freed after intense international pressure. Mr. Alvarez Paz
said he would appeal the late Wednesday conviction.

Mr. Alvarez Paz, who has been a vocal critic of Mr. Chavez, hopes to
win an opposition primary and challenge Mr. Chavez for the presidency
next year.

"My case is an example of the criminalization of political
dissidence," he said. "And now there are a lot of cases, like mine,
that are piling up. In this country there is a politics of repression
against political figures and media that are in opposition to the

Human-rights organizations say the case against Mr. Alvarez Paz is an
example of how the Chavez government uses the courts to silence
political rivals and curb free speech.

"The conviction of Alvarez Paz is a major blow to free speech," said
Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "It
shows how the laws put in place by Chavez and his supporters to
regulate public debate can be used to punish his critics."

The Chavez government denies it is using the nation's justice system
for political ends. Rather, it says it is fighting the corruption of
previous administrations.

Critics have alleged before that the Chavez government protects drug
traffickers and terrorists. In 2008, the U.S. put three top members of
Mr. Chavez inner circle on a Treasury blacklist, including Venezuela's
present armed forces chief, after it accused them of dealing in guns
and cocaine with Colombian Communist FARC guerrillas.

Mr. Chavez at the time dismissed the accusations as attempts to
destabilize his government and has consistently denied any ties to
drug traffickers and terrorists.

It wasn't immediately clear how the ruling would affect Mr. Alvarez
Paz's political future. Mr. Alvarez Paz's son Juan Carlos, part of his
father's defense team, said it remained unclear if his father would be
able to run for office. "We think so, but our lawyers are looking over
the case to see if there is some sort of consequence in that regard,"
he said.

Mr. Alvarez Paz is barred from leaving Venezuela for the duration of
the sentence.

Critics say that the Chavez government has blocked more than 200
opposition figures from running for elected office with criminal
charges and, in some cases, stripped opponents who have managed to win
an election of any significant duties.

The Chavez government has brought charges ranging from incitement to
riot to corruption against several of the leading candidates for the
opposition's presidential nomination.

Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of Miranda state, who is leading
in the polls as the favorite opposition candidate to challenge Mr.
Chavez, was imprisoned for charges, eventually dismissed, of
assaulting the Cuban Embassy in 2002.

Another potential opposition presidential candidate, Leopoldo Lopez, a
charismatic former mayor, is barred from running for office as he is
investigated on charges of alleged corruption. Mr. Lopez is
challenging that ruling in international courts.

Critics say Mr. Chavez goes after critical media outlets as well as
potential ballot box threats. In 2007, Mr. Chavez closed one of the
country's top two television networks, RCTV, sparking an international
outcry, as well as a student movement to defend civil liberties.

Legal authorities have previously cited opposition cable station
Globovision. Most recently it said Globovision's license could be
suspended because the station had aired footage of a prison rebellion
which had caused Venezuelans to feel "unease."

The Chavez government's authoritarian tendencies has given pause even
to some of its most supportive friends. Noam Chomsky, the U.S.
linguist who has been an important supporter of Mr. Chavez, wrote an
open letter asking the Venezuelan leader to free a judge, Maria
Lourdes Afiuni, who was charged and jailed for corruption after
rendering a decision that angered Mr. Chavez. She denies the charges.
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