Mérida, July 14th 2011 (Venezuelanalysis.com) - On Wednesday Venezuela’s Oswaldo Alvarez Paz was formally convicted of “spreading false information” to the general public by making unsubstantiated claims on national television that his country had “become a safe haven for drug trafficking and terrorism.” Alvarez, ex-governor of Zulia state and a possible candidate in the opposition’s presidential primaries, was handed a two-year prison sentence which he will serve on conditional release (house arrest) and is also barred from leaving the country.
The conviction against Alvarez, which was issued by the Caracas-based 21st Courthouse of the Metropolitan District (AMC), finds him guilty of violating Article 296-A of Venezuela’s Penal Code which prohibits “any individual, by way of print, radio, television, electronic mail, or written leaflets, from using false information to cause panic or a sustained anxiety in the general collective.”
With a possible sentence of “between two and five years in prison,” Alvarez’s two-year sentence with house arrest privileges is the lightest possible sentence for someone convicted of violating said law.
The incident in question occurred 08 March 2010 during a televised interview on the opposition’s private media network Globovision. During a 40-minute exclusive, Alvarez told viewers that the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had allowed their country to become a “safe haven” for drug trafficking and “for subversive and terrorist groups around the world”, including the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Basque Homeland and Freedom, or Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA).
In the interview, Alvarez also affirmed that “a great deal of concern among the international community” exists in relation to Venezuela, suggesting an uncertain future for the country’s place in the community of nations.
Alvarez’s controversial interview came at a time of heightened tensions between Venezuela, Colombia, and Spain. Both Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Spanish Supreme Court Justice Eloy Velasco were making similar accusations against the Venezuelan government based on “evidence” from the laptop computers of assassinated FARC Commander Raul Reyes; evidence which was later found to be “inadmissible” by Colombia’s Supreme Court.
Both the FARC and ETA are officially classified as “terrorist organizations” by the U.S. State Department. Right-wing members of the U.S. congress, including Florida’s Connie Mack, have recently attempted to place Venezuela on the State Department’s list of “state-sponsors of terrorism” based on Venezuela’s supposed “links” to said organizations.
Speaking outside of the courtroom on Wednesday, Alvarez alleged that the trial was “political” and called on the Chavez government to, “focus on its responsibilities, to protect the country from things such as drug-trafficking, terrorism, and human rights violations.”
Alvarez also said he is “absolutely convinced that we now live in a country in which the rule of law has disappeared” and affirmed he would “look to the international entities” for help during the appeals process.
Alvarez’s “Friends” Abroad
At the time of his initial detention in March of last year, Alvarez received immediate support from organizations and individuals abroad. Amnesty International, for example, issued an Urgent Action Alert in which it affirmed Alvarez’s detention was “part of a wave of arrests and charges against those critical of the government,” claiming the Chavez government was attempting to “silence” critics.
In addition, the U.S.-based Human Rights Foundation declared Alvarez a “prisoner of conscience” and the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights used his case to argue that the “the State’s punitive power” was being used “to criminalize human rights defenders, judicialize peaceful social protest, and persecute political dissidents through the criminal system.”
Meanwhile, Forbes.com published an op-ed piece by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, in which the diplomat claimed Alvarez’s “real crime is that of being the clear-headed conscience of Venezuela’s opposition.” As evidence of this, Noriega referred to a column written by Alvarez one month earlier in which he claimed “Cuban troops have arrived to defend the Chavez revolution, which is crumbling under the popular rejection of its inefficiency, corruption and communism.”
In July 2010, Alvarez published a column in Venezuela’s daily El Nacional titled, “An Uncertain Venezuela” in which he called on the Venezuelan people to “replace the current regime as soon as possible, and with the least amount of trauma possible.” He called on readers to “organize, not let up for one moment, and put a stop to the monstrous process underway” led by democratically-elected President Hugo Chavez.
Late last month, while Chavez was undergoing emergency medical surgery in Cuba, Alvarez claimed that Venezuela was “drifting” away from democracy and that the country was now “subordinated to the decision of Raul and Fidel Castro.”
In response, Alvarez said, the Venezuelan opposition should form a “Front for the Rescue of Democracy” that serves to put a stop to the unspecified “totalitarian offensive.”