An opponent of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez must remain in jail until he goes on trial for remarks he made on a TV talk show, a judge ruled on Wednesday.
The judge refused to release Oswaldo Alvarez Paz on grounds that he could flee the country and ordered him to remain in police custody at the headquarters of Venezuela’s state intelligence service, said his attorney, Omar Estacio.
Alvarez Paz has been charged with conspiracy, spreading false information and publicly inciting crime. The charges stem from his comments during a talk show on March 8, when he said Venezuela has turned into a haven for drug traffickers and he also backed allegations by a Spanish judge that Venezuela’s government has cooperated with the Basque separatist group ETA and Colombian rebels.
Chavez has dismissed those accusations as lies. Alvarez Paz stands by his words and denies breaking the law.
His detention has drawn condemnation from Venezuela’s opposition, human rights activists and the US government.
Opposition leaders and rights activists argue the prosecution of Alvarez Paz amounts to political persecution — an allegation that government officials deny.
Alvarez Paz’s lawyer said he would appeal Wednesday’s ruling because the judge “violated due process and the right to defense” by failing to provide evidence that his client would flee the country if he were released ahead of the trial.
Prosecutors say Alvarez Paz — who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1993 could face two to 16 years in prison if convicted of any of the three charges.
In other news, Chavez is adding three days to the Easter holiday to bolster his government’s efforts to reduce electricity consumption as the country struggles with a severe energy crisis.
Chavez said on Wednesday he had designated the three days after Easter Sunday as days off. Coupled with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, already holidays, Venezuelans will now have an entire week off from work.
Business groups said the decision would disrupt industrial production, interfere with tax deadlines and possibly cause shortages of some foods that are already scarce.
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