Chavez opponent ordered freed from police custody |

Chavez opponent ordered freed from police custody

Associated Press Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela – An outspoken opponent of President Hugo Chavez was released from custody Thursday, but a lawyer said Oswaldo Alvarez Paz still faces criminal charges for remarks on a TV talk show.

Attorney Omar Estacio said a judge ordered the state intelligence service to free his client while he awaits trial on charges of spreading false information and publicly inciting crime.

“He’s going to be with his family, his children, his wife,” Estacio said.

Alvarez Paz, a former presidential candidate and state governor, was arrested March 28 for saying in a television appearance several weeks earlier that Venezuela has turned into a haven for drug traffickers. He also backed allegations by a Spanish judge that Chavez’s government has cooperated with the Basque separatist group ETA and Colombian rebels.

Chavez has dismissed those accusations.

As he left the intelligence agency’s headquarters surrounded by relatives and friends, Alvarez Paz called the charges against him politically motivated and vowed not curb his criticism of Chavez.

“Here we are, willing to continue fighting for the principles and values that we’ve always believed in: a person’s total freedom to express opinions,” he said.

Alvarez Paz, 67, held up a T-shirt that read: “Expressing an opinion is not a crime,” then climbed in a black sedan that sped off.

One of the politician’s sons said that under the terms of his release, Alvarez Paz is barred from leaving Venezuela or speaking publicly about the case and could be taken into custody again if he violates those rules.

“This is only the beginning to a process that we must confront,” the son, Juan Carlos Alvarez, told the television channel Globovision.

The case against of Alvarez Paz has drawn strong condemnation from opposition leaders and human rights activists who say the case shows freedoms are being eroded by Chavez’s socialist government. The New York-based Human Rights Watch called the case a setback for freedom of expression in Venezuela.

Alvarez Paz isn’t the only Chavez opponent facing prosecution for making remarks that authorities deemed misleading and offensive to Chavez.

Last month, prosecutors brought criminal charges against Guillermo Zuloaga, the majority shareholder of Globovision, Venezuela’s lone anti-Chavez television channel, alleging he made false and offensive remarks about Chavez at a meeting of the Inter American Press Association.

Zuloaga claims the government is using the charges to pressure him into curbing the TV station’s anti-Chavez editorial line. He has promised not to tone down Globovision’s criticism of the government.