(Updates with Guaido comments)
WASHINGTON, Feb 15 (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department on Saturday condemned the detention of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido's uncle as politically motivated and demanded his immediate release.
Juan Jose Marquez was detained on Tuesday on his return to Venezuela after a three-week international tour. He was together with Guaido, who is recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela's legitimate president.
"The preposterous charges that have been put forward further exemplify the increasing desperation of Maduro and his corrupt associates," said State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus in a statement. "Manufacturing evidence to justify arbitrary, politically motivated detentions is a common tool of the illegitimate former Maduro regime."
According to the State Department, Marquez was being accused of smuggling explosive material aboard a direct international flight from Portugal. Ortagus scoffed at the charges saying Marquez had gone through strict security screening and protocols at Lisbon airports. He also noted TAP Air Portugal had affirmed publicly that it was impossible to travel with explosives.
"These despicable actions by the former Maduro regime detaining innocent civilians and inventing false charges are sadly typical," said Ortagus. "Rather than abide by the rule of law, Maduro and his cronies follow mafia-style practices, intimidating the opposition by targeting their family members."
Maduro on Friday said "the day will come" when the country's courts will order Guaido's arrest.
Guaido during a press conference on Saturday said Maduro had targeted his uncle because authorities are afraid to throw him in jail despite having repeatedly threatened to do so over the last year.
"They could have done it any time last year ... but they're so cowardly that they had to detain a family member," he said.
Venezuela's information ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Venezuela's economic collapse under President Nicolas Maduro has prompted nearly 5 million people to emigrate, creating a migration crisis in nearby Latin American nations. Maduro calls Guaido a U.S-backed puppet who seeks to oust him in a coup.
According to the State Department, there were 2,219 arbitrary arrests reported in Venezuela last year, and more than 15,000 were reported from 2014 to 2019. (Reporting by Lucia Mutikani, additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Deisy Buitrago; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)
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