Court slaps media gag on Chavez opponent

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The Independent US

Venezuela's highest court barred an outspoken opponent of President Hugo Chavez from talking to news media about criminal charges alleging he struck a police official.

The Supreme Court's order prohibits politician Wilmer Azuaje from "talking in relation to the present issue through any media outlet," including television, radio, newspapers or the internet.

It said the measure is meant to protect the "reputation, integrity and honour of the victim."

The court order comes as a chorus of Chavez critics and human rights groups are accusing the government of increasingly using the courts to punish its adversaries while ignoring other allegedly illegal acts by the socialist leader's allies.

Mr Chavez rejects such accusations.

Mr Azuaje, a former supporter of the president, denied any wrongdoing, saying the charges against him are politically motivated for his criticism of Mr Chavez and his family.

The legislator from Mr Chavez's home state of Barinas long complained of harassment by authorities that he claims is retaliation for his allegations of corruption and nepotism against Mr Chavez's family. The family denies the accusations.

Police official Yuraima Castillo accused Mr Azuaje of verbally abusing her and grabbing and hitting her on the shoulder during an argument while he was picking up a car that had been stolen from his mother and recovered by police.

Mr Azuaje was detained after prosecutors accused him of insulting a public official and breaking a law that prohibits violence against women.

The National Assembly, which is dominated by allies of Mr Chavez, lifted Mr Azuaje's immunity as a politician from prosecution - a rare step usually reserved for crimes such as corruption.

Mr Azuaje was released from police custody after appearing in court on Saturday.

The order issued by the Supreme Court on Sunday said Azuaje was freed on the condition he return to court every 15 days while awaiting trial. He is also banned from leaving the country and must undergo an evaluation conducted by court authorities who specialise in cases involving violence against women.

Mr Azuaje, a former member of the president's ruling party, called Mr Chavez a "coward" and accused him of using the judicial and legislative branches of government to go after opponents.



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