Leading human rights activists condemned Venezuelan authorities on Wednesday for sentencing a union leader to prison for launching a strike, saying more than 100 other unionists also face charges after participating in protests.
Ruben Gonzalez was sentenced Monday to seven-and-a-half years in prison on charges related to a strike he led that temporarily paralyzed Venezuela's state-run iron mining company.
Marino Alvarado, who heads the human rights group Provea, said it is an "emblematic case" of authorities prosecuting those who hold labor protests. He and other activists denounced the sentence in a small protest outside the attorney general's office in the capital, Caracas, holding signs reading "Protesting is not a crime, it's a right."
Alvarado said that by Provea's count there are now about 2,500 people facing charges for participating in protests in Venezuela, including 125 union activists. He said such cases have grown dramatically since 2005, when there were protest-related charges against about 20 people in the country.
The leading human rights coalition Foro por la Vida, or Forum for Life, said in a statement that the sentence against Gonzalez shows the government "fears the emergence of a labor movement" that imposes its own agenda.
President Hugo Chavez has repeatedly said his socialist-oriented government has done more for the working class than previous administrations, and officials deny the government uses prosecutors and judges to curb the power of labor unions.
One union leader, Pablo Zambrano, said that in the coming weeks labor groups will hold protests in various Venezuelan cities to demand that Gonzalez be freed.
Gonzalez's defense lawyer, Italo Atencio, has said he will appeal. Gonzalez was sentenced on charges including unlawful assembly, incitement to commit crimes and violation of a government security zone during a 2009 strike at CVG Ferrominera Orinoco CA, better known as Ferrominera.