Venezuelan prosecutors charge anti-Chavez TV chief

CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan prosecutors charged the head of an anti-government television station with usury on Thursday, ending a weeks-long investigation into his business activities that he called politically motivated.

Globovision president Guillermo Zuloaga was charged with usury after a police raid uncovered 24 Toyota vehicles outside his Caracas office last month, prompting an investigation into two car dealerships he owns, prosecutors said in a statement.

Trade Minister Eduardo Saman accused Zuloaga of keeping the cars off the market while waiting for their price to rise — involving a possible violation of foreign exchange rules that give importers access to dollars only if they aren't used to gain a "disproportionate advantage" over rivals.

It was not clear if Zuloaga received dollars that way from the government, but importers who violate those terms can be prosecuted under Venezuelan usury law. A spokesperson for the prosecutor's office did not immediately answer calls seeking comment.

Zuloaga, 67, dismissed the investigation as political intimidation, saying he has no reason leave the country or be afraid. He said he'd stored the vehicles outside his office for safekeeping because one of his dealerships had been robbed.

"This is something to try to somehow frighten Globovision, shut up Globovision," he told reporters. "The government knows very well that shutting or closing down news media is no way to hide the reality of what is happening in Venezuela."

If convicted, Zuloaga could face up to 3 years in prison.

Venezuelan officials have been investigating Globovision and its president on various charges since last month.

President Hugo Chavez denies the inquiry into Zuloaga is linked to Globovision. But he last week urged the nation's attorney general, Supreme Court and telecommunications chief to take action against "poisonous" private media or resign.

He gave no specific details and named no specific news organizations, but he has often criticized Globovision and certain newspapers in the past.

Broadcast regulators last month accused Globovision of inciting "panic and anxiety" by criticizing the government for its slow response to a moderate earthquake, and prosecutors this week opened a second inquiry into Zuloaga for a suspected "environmental crime" related to wild animals he'd hunted and had mounted in his Caracas residence.

State television broadcast footage of prosecutors accompanied by dozens of National Guard troops arriving at Zuloaga's house on Thursday evening to gather evidence in that case. Perla Jaimes, Globovision's legal represenative, said they entered the residence in the city's upscale Los Chorros neighborhood and took the hunting trophies.

Free press groups including the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the investigation of Globovision.

Since Chavez refused to renew the broadcast license of Radio Caracas Television in 2007, Globovision has been the only anti-government network on public airwaves in Venezuela.

People look at the moon at the Temple of Hercules at the Citadel in Amman. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed