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Critics Say Chavez Targeting Opponents For Arrest

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Critics Say Chavez Targeting Opponents For Arrest

Latin America

Critics Say Chavez Targeting Opponents For Arrest

Critics Say Chavez Targeting Opponents For Arrest

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113513484/113527220" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Venezuelan students stage a hunger strike in support of Julio Cesar Rivas i

Venezuelan students spend the fifth day of a hunger strike outside the headquarters of the Organization of American States in Caracas on Sept. 28. Students across the country held a hunger strike in support of Julio Cesar Rivas, a student who was arrested during an anti-government demonstration in August, and others. Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
Venezuelan students stage a hunger strike in support of Julio Cesar Rivas

Venezuelan students spend the fifth day of a hunger strike outside the headquarters of the Organization of American States in Caracas on Sept. 28. Students across the country held a hunger strike in support of Julio Cesar Rivas, a student who was arrested during an anti-government demonstration in August, and others.

Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

At a recent protest, dozens of university students in Caracas, Venezuela's capital, chant in the name of Julio Cesar Rivas.

The government arrested the 22-year-old student in August after a protest against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He was charged with inciting civil war and sent to one of Venezuela's most infamous prisons.

Fellow students went on a hunger strike to demand his release.

Calling Rivas a political prisoner, Rodolfo Spitaleri said the hunger strikers wanted to get the word out about the arrests of government opponents.

"We are taking extreme measures because the other measures we have taken before are not being answered," Spitaleri said.

Critics of Chavez say his government has been jailing dozens of key opponents — some of them students, some of them veteran politicians.

The government says they are dangerous adversaries who foment violence.

But human rights groups and constitutional experts say Venezuela is increasingly singling out and imprisoning its foes in politically motivated witch hunts.

Carlos Ayala, a constitutional and human rights lawyer, says there are currently 40 or more people in jail for opposing Chavez. He says that the government uses charges like those against Rivas as a cover.

Venezuelan student Julio Cesar Rivas i

Venezuelan student Julio Cesar Rivas speaks with reporters outside the offices of the Organization of American States on Sept. 28. He was released after two weeks in prison, although charges against him have not been dropped. Carlos Hernandez/AP hide caption

toggle caption Carlos Hernandez/AP
Venezuelan student Julio Cesar Rivas

Venezuelan student Julio Cesar Rivas speaks with reporters outside the offices of the Organization of American States on Sept. 28. He was released after two weeks in prison, although charges against him have not been dropped.

Carlos Hernandez/AP

"Those reasons will always serve to explain the formalities, or why they are in prisons. But really, the motivation in all of those cases is because of their belief, their thoughts, their political expressions against the regime," Ayala says.

Chavez frequently denies holding political prisoners and touts his as one of the world's most democratic governments. People can protest — and they frequently do.

Chavez told CNN's Larry King in a recent interview that he was redistributing power so the people would govern. He often says he is not really interested in wielding power.

But rights lawyers say Chavez increasingly uses every means at his disposal, including a potent state-run media, to target his foes.

Mario Silva, the host of the state television show The Razor, skewers the opposition. He recently singled out Rivas after the university student was filmed protesting in Caracas.

"Look, these are his friends," Silva said in a mocking tone, showing pictures of Rivas, taken from his Facebook profile, with opposition leaders.

The message is that with friends like these, Rivas is out to destabilize the government.

The evidence used by prosecutors against Rivas was repeatedly presented on The Razor and on state TV news shows. In a video clip of Rivas at the Caracas protest, Rivas told a state TV reporter that he "wanted to go to the Congress."

Wilmer Flores, a top police official, later explained that Rivas was a threat — a leader of a dangerous group of militants.

Alfredo Romero, Rivas' lawyer, calls the charges against his client — among them, instigating civil war — outlandish.

"Instigation to civil war means that you actually instigate people to fight against each other, and the only thing that he said was that he wanted to go to the Congress," Romero says.

In the face of protests and the student hunger strike, the government released Rivas at the end of September after he spent three weeks in jail.

Rivas still has to deal with criminal charges. But Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami said the release showed that justice in Venezuela is independent.

El Aissami told state television that with the release, the government had once more debunked what he called countless opposition lies.

One day after his release, Rivas joined the hunger strike in the name of other detainees. He said he now has a duty to help all those who remain behind bars.

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