The leader of Venezuela's Roman Catholic Church joined other critics of President Hugo Chavez on Monday by accusing the government of using judges and prosecutors to punish political adversaries.
Cardinal Jorge Urosa said it is evident that authorities are unfairly prosecuting Chavez opponents for simply criticizing the government.
Urosa said an increasing number of Chavez's foes are being "imprisoned for their opinion" and he urged Venezuelans to speak out against "any violation of human rights."
Human rights groups have also expressed serious concerns that Chavez is becoming increasingly authoritarian and cracking down on dissent.
Chavez denies doing that. He says he holds no sway over the justice system, but encourages authorities to uphold Venezuelan laws.
In the past week, prosecutors have brought criminal charges against Guillermo Zuloaga, the majority shareholder of Venezuela's lone anti-Chavez television channel, and opposition politician Oswaldo Alvarez Paz for making remarks that authorities deemed misleading and offensive to the president.
Both government critics deny any wrongdoing and say they stand by their statements.
Zuloaga, owner of the Globovision TV channel, is facing charges for making what prosecutors consider "offensive" remarks about Chavez at an Inter American Press Association meeting in Aruba. Zuloaga joined other media executives at the forum in criticizing Chavez's government for limiting free speech and cracking down on critics.
Alvarez Paz has been charged with conspiracy, spreading false information and publicly inciting crime after commenting during an interview on Globovision that Venezuela has turned into a haven for drug traffickers.
Alvarez, a former state governor and presidential candidate, also said he backed allegations by a Spanish judge that Venezuela's government has cooperated with the Basque separatist group ETA and Colombian rebels, accusations that Chavez vehemently rejects. Urosa also called attention to the case of Maria Afiuni, a judge who has been jailed on charges of corruption and abuse of power for freeing a high-profile banker. Afiuni denies breaking the law, and government critics argue her arrest in December shows the judiciary's lack of independence.