CARACAS – Venezuelan opposition leader Oswaldo Alvarez was arrested after saying on television that Venezuela had become a haven for drug traffickers and terrorists.
After being summoned last Friday to the Attorney General’s Office for questioning, Alvarez told reporters that he stood by all he said on March 8 on the Globovision network with regard to alleged government ties with terrorists and drug traffickers.
The AG office said that it was charging him Friday for “conspiracy, public instigation to commit crime and disseminating false information.”
Alvarez, a former governor of oil-rich Zulia state and sometime presidential hopeful, said that one of the sources on which he based his accusation was Spanish Judge Eloy Velasco’s charge concerning the alleged complicity of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's administration with Colombia’s FARC rebels and the Basque terrorist group ETA.
Caracas rejects those allegations, which stem from information the Colombian government says was found on a computer seized in a raid that led to the death of FARC second-in-command Raul Reyes.
It constitutes “a damaging remark” to be accused “of such crimes because of statements made on the basis of a decision by a judge of the Spanish (National) Court,” Alvarez said last Friday.
Alvarez’s attorney, Omar Estacio, told Union Radio that “it won’t be easy” to defend his client, because in Venezuela “we’re all living in conditional freedom.”
In an immediate reaction to the arrest, the 21st Century Forum, a think-tank with which Alvarez is associated, expressed in a communique its “entire democratic solidarity.”
Alvarez “has done nothing more than exercise his right to free speech,” the forum said.
The investigation against Alvarez began March 9 based on a complaint filed by pro-Chavez lawmakers Manuel Villalba and Pedro Lander.
The legislators considered that Alvarez should be sanctioned for saying that “Venezuela has become a center of operations for facilitating the drug-trafficking business” and maintaining that the Chavez government has relations with ETA and the FARC.
Venezuela is not a source of illegal drugs, but it is a transit nation for narcotics from neighboring Colombia, the world’s top producer of cocaine.
At a news briefing Wednesday, U.S. State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said Alvarez was being prosecuted for expressing political views.
"We are seriously concerned about the arrest of former governor Oswaldo Alvarez Paz for simply expressing his views on a TV talk show," said Toner. "It is unfortunately the latest example of the government's continuing assault on freedom of expression. We urge the Venezuelan government to honor its commitment under the Inter-American Democratic Charter to uphold the principle that respect for human rights, including freedom of expression, is essential for representative democracies," he added.
Spokesman Toner noted that Human Rights Watch has also called the arrest a major setback for freedom of expression in Venezuela.
The Latin American Affairs Director for Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel V
ivanco, accusedChavez of trying to intimidate critics with allegations of conspiracies and coup-mongering, and said jailing someone for criticizing the government is a clear abuse of power.
Alvarez faces between two and 16 years in prison if convicted on one or more of the charges.