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Venezuela holds Chavez critic for "conspiracy"

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan authorities have jailed a former state governor and presidential candidate who accused President Hugo Chavez’s government of links to subversive groups in Latin America.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez arrives at the international airport in Cancun February 21, 2010. REUTERS/Gerardo Garcia

The detention of Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, a veteran with the opposition COPEI party but not one of Chavez’s most prominent foes, will fuel criticism that the Venezuelan leader is taking his nation down an increasingly dictatorial route.

Alvarez joins a list of several dozen Chavez opponents now in jail, living in exile or facing probes in the South American oil-producing country.

With the political atmosphere heating up before legislative elections in September -- seen as a barometer for a 2012 presidential vote -- Chavez says his opponents are increasingly breaking laws in their desperation to topple him.

A court ordered Alvarez’s arrest at his home in Caracas late on Monday on charges of conspiracy, spreading false information and inciting hatred, judicial officials said on Tuesday.

He governed oil-producing Zulia state in the early 1990s and unsuccessfully ran for the presidency with COPEI in 1993.

Authorities opened an inquiry into Alvarez earlier this month after he gave an interview to pro-opposition TV network Globovision accusing the government of ties to illegal groups.

“The Venezuelan regime has relations with structures that serve narco-trafficking, like (Colombian rebel group) FARC and others which exist in the continent and the world,” he said.

The accusations against Alvarez could carry a jail sentence of between two and 16 years, local media said.

“I assume the responsibility for the things that I have said and that I do,” he told reporters before his arrest.


His lawyer, Omar Estancio, said the arrest order was “disproportional” and “politicized” while COPEI, a Christian Democrat party, called the accusations “absurd”.

“The national government, once again using the institutions it has taken over, tries to silence criticism and denunciations by those who do not think like it does,” the party said.

Chavez supporters argue, however, their president is a victim of a U.S.-led campaign of vilification, and that he is reversing decades of exploitation in the OPEC member nation with policies for the poor like free clinics and schools.

At the weekend, Chavez said he would not tolerate illegal use of the Internet or media by his opponents.

The best-known Chavez critic in jail is Raul Isaias Baduel, a former defense minister who left government in 2007 to campaign against his former boss but was imprisoned last year on corruption charges.

In a blow for Venezuela’s reputation, the human rights wing of the Organization of American States last month criticized what it described as the concentration of power and curbing of civil liberties in Venezuela under Chavez.

Additional reporting by Ana Isabel Martinez, editing by Anthony Boadle