Rights group: Chavez trying to silence dissent

Amnesty International on Thursday accused the government of President Hugo Chavez of using Venezuela's judiciary to persecute its opponents.

The human rights group condemned what it called "a series of politically motivated arrests" last month involving three Chavez foes: former presidential candidate Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, opposition lawmaker Wilmer Azuaje and television executive Guillermo Zuloaga.

"Charges brought for political reasons against critics are being used to silence dissent and prevent others from speaking out," Guadalupe Marengo, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Americas, said in a statement.

"President Chavez must stop persecuting those who think differently or speak out against his government," Marengo said.

Amnesty International joined a growing number human rights organizations that have recently raised concerns that Chavez is using judges and prosecutors to punish political adversaries.

Chavez disputes that he is trying to silence dissident. He also denies that he holds sway over the judiciary, but he has defended the recent arrests, saying anybody who breaks Venezuela's laws should be held responsible for their acts.

Last month, prosecutors brought criminal charges against Zuloaga, the majority shareholder of Globovision, Venezuela's lone anti-Chavez television channel, and Alvarez Paz for making remarks that authorities deemed misleading and offensive to the president.

Both deny any wrongdoing and say they stand by their statements.

In a letter sent to news media this week, Alvarez Paz called himself a political prisoner.

"I'm locked up for giving an opinion, alerting and criticizing the government regarding issues that are of public knowledge," he wrote.

a claim he calls false. The lawmaker argues Chavez is using prosecutors to punish him for his accusations against the president's relatives.