A Caracas criminal court has convicted the former governor of Zulia state for criticizing President Hugo Chávez.
The convicted man is long-time politician and likely presidential candidate Oswaldo Álvarez Paz. The conviction followed a 16-month trial. The judge will determine whether Álvarez Paz must serve his two-year sentence in prison or on parole.
Prosecutors charged Álvarez Paz with conspiracy and spreading false information. More than a year ago Álvarez Paz was a guest on a Globovision television talk show.
The Human Right Foundation described the alleged crime this way:
“On March 8, 2010, Álvarez Paz, the former governor of Zulia, participated in a televised interview where he criticized the human rights situation in Venezuela and discussed alleged ties between the Venezuelan government, drug-trafficking cartels, the Spanish terrorist organization ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The next day, a member of the Venezuelan National Assembly filed a criminal complaint against his statements with the attorney general’s office. A public prosecutor then formally pressed charges for the crimes of conspiracy, public instigation to commit crimes, and dissemination of false information. After 51 days under preventive imprisonment, Álvarez Paz was released conditionally, pending the final resolution of his trial.”
“The message is clear: criticize President Chávez on television, and you may become a convicted criminal,” said Thor Halvorssen, president of the foundation. “Of all the cases of political persecution in Venezuela, the case of Oswaldo Álvarez Paz is most representative of the deterioration of Venezuelan democracy. A member of congress accused him, a public prosecutor indicted him, the political police arrested him, and a judge convicted him for criticizing the president. Chávez did not need to move a muscle. Venezuela now has a well-oiled repressive machinery,” said Halvorssen.
On April 5, the Human Rights Foundation published a legal report on the case of Álvarez Paz and declared him a prisoner of conscience of the Venezuelan government. The report determined that the actions carried out by the Venezuelan authorities in charge of his case violated the international legal standard on freedom of expression.
“International law prohibits the criminalization of expressions or opinions, especially when they are directed at public servants,” stated Javier El-Hage, general counsel of the foundation. “Oswaldo Álvarez Paz’s conviction for expressing opinions critical of President Chávez and his government is a violation of international law and makes the Venezuelan State internationally responsible,” added El-Hage.
Since 2000, the Venezuelan government has systematically restricted freedom of expression within the country. Since 2007, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have repeatedly found the Venezuelan government responsible for violating freedom of expression. Venezuela is the only state in the Americas to deny the Inter-American Commission access to its territory.
Since 2009, the Freedom of the Press Index has ranked Venezuela as “not free.” Other countries in this category include Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Libya, North Korea, and Turkmenistan.