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Imprisoned Venezuelan journalist declares hunger strike

By the CNN Wire Staff
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been accused of intimidating citizens based on their political beliefs.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been accused of intimidating citizens based on their political beliefs.
  • NEW: Human rights organizations say Chavez violates free speech
  • Leocenis Garcia has been held two years without trial
  • He was arrested in May 2008 on weapons and property charges
  • Garcia says he was targeted for criticizing government's petroleum industry

(CNN) -- A Venezuelan journalist who has been held for two years without a trial reported that he has gone on a hunger strike, saying he wants the judge in his case to recuse himself.

Leocenis Garcia made the announcement June 30 on Twitter.

"I am starting an indefinite hunger strike until the Judge Jesus Jimenez of Court 20 stops working on my case," Garcia said.

It was not immediately known why Garcia wants the judge removed.

The journalist was arrested in May 2008 and charged with five offenses, including illegal possession of a firearm, resistance to authority and property damage.

Garcia and his supporters say he was really arrested for publishing articles critical of Venezuela's state-run petroleum industry.

Garcia said in August 2008 that he had been tortured by Venezuela's secret police, published reports said.

He is being held in the Tocuyito prison, and his father has expressed concerns that his son will be killed there.

Human rights organizations have frequently accused leftist President Hugo Chavez of intimidating or punishing citizens based on their political beliefs.

In June, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights sent a letter to Venezuela's foreign minister, criticizing the government on its record of freedom of expression.

At issue were three cases, including the conviction and sentencing the previous week of journalist Francisco "Pancho" Perez to nearly four years in prison and a fine of more than $18,000 for defamation of public officials.

The charges were brought because of a 2009 newspaper column published in the city of Carabobo that highlighted many of the mayor's family members who were hired as contractors by the local government.

"The evident disproportion of the sentence handed down for the publication of a piece that was clearly in the public interest demonstrates the serious state of vulnerability in which freedom of expression in Venezuela finds itself," the commission said in a statement.

In February, the commission issued a 319-page report accusing Venezuela of routinely violating human rights. The report said that a lack of independence by Venezuela's judiciary and legislature in their dealings with Chavez often leads to the abuses.

"The report finds that not all individuals are ensured full enjoyment of their rights irrespective of their positions on government policies," the human rights panel said. "The commission also finds that the punitive power of the state is being used to intimidate or punish people on account of their political opinions. The commission believes that conditions do not exist for human rights defenders and journalists to be able to freely carry out their work."

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is an independent arm of the Organization of American States.

Chavez's opponents say his government represses political opponents and the expression of free ideas by jailing critics on trumped-up charges or pulling licenses for TV and radio stations and shutting down newspapers. There are about 40 such political prisoners in Venezuelan jails, the critics say.

Most of those prisoners, Chavez critics say, are journalists and former military and police officials and others associated with a short-lived coup against Chavez in April 2002.

Some of the prisoners have been held for long periods without trials or during proceedings that have dragged on for months and even years, the critics say, and they say other prisoners have received harsh sentences under questionable charges. Many of the detainees are held at the secret police headquarters rather than a prison.

"Attacks on journalists were widespread," said Amnesty International's 2009 Report on Human Rights in Venezuela. "Human rights defenders continued to suffer harassment. Prison conditions provoked hunger strikes in facilities across the country."

Human Rights Watch, an independent global organization, issued a 230-page report in 2008 that said Chavez has shown an "open disregard for the principle of separation of powers ... specifically, the notion that an independent judiciary is indispensable for protecting fundamental rights."

"In the absence of credible judicial oversight," Human Rights Watch said, "the Chavez government has engaged in often discriminatory policies that have undercut journalists' freedom of expression, workers' freedom of association and civil society's ability to promote human rights in Venezuela."

The Chavez government has routinely denied any allegations of human rights abuses, saying that authorities arrest citizens only on suspicion of breaking the law.