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Journalist still held in custody despite quashing of criminal case against him

(RSF/IFEX) - A court in the western state of Táchira has ordered that journalist Gustavo Azócar should remain in custody despite ordering the annulment of a criminal case against him. He is the only journalist currently in prison in Venezuela.

Reporters Without Borders said it feared that the journalist was being hounded for his critical stance towards the government and called for his release.

Azócar, a former presenter on the privately-owned regional television station Televisora del Táchira and on Radio Notícias 1060, as well as a former correspondent for the daily "El Universal", was arrested on 29 July 2009 for allegedly referring on his blog, , to "corruption" and "fraud" cases against him.

His wife, Mary de Azócar, confirmed to Reporters Without Borders that on 5 October, the judge, José Oliveros Gómez, threw out the case against her husband, ordered that the proceedings should start again from scratch and that he should remain in detention in the meantime.

Azócar had faced "corruption" and "fraud" charges for failing to read official advertising spots on his radio program in 2000. The journalist, who had previously been imprisoned in 2006, was jailed again in July 2009 for having broken a ban on speaking about his case, something he has always denied.

"The proceedings against Gustavo Azócar are not officially linked to his work, but this case has suspicious flaws. The fraud case was never proved and yet he remains in custody," the worldwide press freedom organisation said.

"Azócar was briefly detained in 2006 but has never sought to flee since then. The use of preventive detention is not applicable if a case has been completely quashed, which is what has just happened. We fear the journalist is being hounded for his critical stance towards the government. Gustavo Azócar must be released," RSF added.

Strangely, Ana Casanova, the Táchira state official who lodged the corruption complaint against Azócar, has twice cited health problems for failing to appear at hearings in the case. Following claims of major irregularities, the judge, Fanny Jazmina Becerra, was removed from the case.

Azócar, who is a fierce critic of the government, was physically assaulted by pro-Chávez member of parliament Iris Varela while presenting his programme "Café con Azócar", on 20 November 2007 (see video: ).

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