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    US Criticizes Arrest of Venezuelan Opposition Figure

    The United States Wednesday expressed serious concern over the arrest of an opposition political figure in Venezuela who had accused President Hugo Chavez's government of ties to regional subversive groups. Former Venezuelan state governor Oswaldo Alvarez Paz could face as long as 16 years in prison on conspiracy and other charges.

    The State Department has joined human rights groups in criticizing the arrest of former Venezuelan presidential candidate Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, who was arrested Monday after a television interview earlier this month in which he accused the Chavez government of, among other things, helping drug cartels.

    A long-time member of the opposition COPEI party who sought the presidency in 1993, Alvarez joins a growing list of prominent Chavez critics who now in jail, exile, or facing prosecution.

    Authorities opened in inquiry into Alvarez after he gave an interview to the pro-opposition TV network Globovision March 8th in which he said the Caracas government has cooperated with the leftwing Colombian rebel group FARC and facilitated the work of drug traffickers.

    President Chavez dismissed the allegation as lies and a court ordered Alvarez arrest for conspiracy, spreading false information and inciting hate.

    A coalition of Venezuelan opposition groups said Alvarez had been arrested for a crime of opinion.

    At a news briefing, State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner also said he 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 Vivanco, accused Mr. Chavez 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.

    Vivanco said Alvarez' plight is all the more difficult given what he said was the Chavez government's takeover of the country's supreme court.

    Venezuelan judicial officials deny Alvarez is being prosecuted for political reasons, saying he has committed real crimes for which he should answer in court.

    Lawyers for the former governor of oil-rich Zulia state say they are trying the secure his release pending a trial.

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