CARACAS – A former Venezuelan defense minister who has become a staunch critic of President Hugo Chavez was sentenced to almost eight years in prison for alleged misappropriation of funds in connection with the purchase of military equipment.
A military tribunal handed down the sentence in the presence of Raul Baduel and fellow defendant Lt. Col. Hernan Medina Marval, who received the same 7-year, 11-month jail term for “embezzling public funds” belonging to the armed forces.
Baduel has been jailed for slightly more than a year at the Ramo Verde prison outside Caracas, set aside for military personnel, while Medina Marval has been held at the same facility for two years.
According to Baduel’s defense attorneys and relatives and Chavez opponents, the corruption charges were political retaliation for his open opposition to the socialist president.
The former defense minister was named to that post after helping restore Chavez to power following a short-lived 2002 coup.
But he later broke with the president over his 2007 attempt to overhaul the constitution to allow unlimited re-election. That initial effort failed, but term limits were later abolished in a 2009 referendum.
Amnesty International last month accused the Venezuelan government of deliberately targeting opposition leaders and sympathizers and urged it to stop such practices after “a series of politically motivated arrests.”
In a communique, AI denounced the fact that at least three opponents of leftist President Hugo Chavez were arrested and had charges filed against them in March alone.
“Charges brought for political reasons against critics are being used to silence dissent and prevent others from speaking out,” Guadalupe Marengo, AI’s deputy director for the Americas, said.
AI was referring to the cases of former Zulia state Gov. Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, lawmaker Wilmer Azuaje and Guillermo Zuloaga, the owner of opposition-aligned Globovision television.
The Venezuelan Attorney General’s Office said this week it dropped a conspiracy charge against Alvarez Paz, although the former presidential candidate remains accused of spreading false information and publicly instigating crime.
Alvarez Paz was arrested on March 18, 10 days after saying in an interview on Globovision television that Venezuela had become a haven for drug trafficking and that Chavez’s government has links to Marxist guerrillas in Colombia.
The conspiracy charge was the most serious the former governor was facing, though he could still be sentenced to prison if convicted on one of the other counts.
Azuaje was arrested on March 25 and charged with insulting and beating a female police officer, but he was released three days later pending trial.
Zuloaga was arrested the same day and accused of disseminating false information and insulting the president during a recent speech before the Inter-American Press Association.
He was also released but still faces prosecution.
Chavez’s main rival in the 2006 presidential election, Manuel Rosales, fled to Peru after being charged with corruption. He was granted political asylum there.
“Over recent years the Venezuelan government appears to have established a pattern of clamping down on dissent through the use of legislative and administrative methods to silence and harass critics,” Amnesty International said in early April.
“Laws are being used to justify what essentially seems to be politically motivated charges, which would indicate that the Venezuelan government is deliberately targeting opponents,” the human rights watchdog said.