Venezuelan union boss gets 7-year prison sentence

A prominent union leader was sentenced to seven years in prison Monday on charges stemming from a strike that temporarily paralyzed Venezuela's state-run iron mining company, his lawyer said.

The ruling raised concerns among human rights activists who accuse the government of President Hugo Chavez of misusing the legal system to curb the power of organized labor, particularly unions at state-operated companies.

Defense lawyer Italo Atencio said a judge sentenced Ruben Gonzalez on charges including unlawful assembly, public incitement to commit crimes and violation of a government security zone during the 2009 strike at CVG Ferrominera Orinoco CA, better known as Ferrominera.

Atencio vowed to appeal.

"Ruben Gonzalez is innocent. That's the way we are going to handle it," he said in comments broadcast by the Globovision TV channel.

Telephone calls to the offices of Ferrorminera in Caracas and the eastern city of Puerto Ordaz went unanswered late Monday.

An assistant to Mining Minister Jose Khan said the official, who is responsible for overseeing operations at Ferrominera, was not available to comment on Gonzalez's sentence.

Chavez has not responded publicly to critics' allegations that authorities are abusing the courts to hamstring labor unions, though he has denied similar accusations that he is using prosecutors and judges to harrass his political opponents with trumped-up charges.

The president has repeatedly said his socialist-oriented government has done more for the working class than previous administrations, and officials deny the government uses the prosecutors and judges to curb the power of labor unions.

Still, the sentence drew condemnation from Rafael Uzcategui of Provea, a local human rights group.

"We believe this is an example of the lack of independence of the judicial branch and we believe the government influenced this ruling," Uzcategui said. "It's a somber precedent for labor rights in Venezuela."

Uzcategui called the ruling "message of intimidation" for workers and union leaders at state companies.

Provea is one of a number of independent rights groups that have been strongly critical of Chavez's policies, resulting in an antagonistic relationship with the government.

The president accuses Provea and other groups of doing the bidding of his political adversaries.