02/16/2012 02:05 EST | Updated 04/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Uruguay President Jose Mujica insists Luis Suarez isn't a racist, and is still popular at home

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay - Uruguay President Jose Mujica defended Liverpool striker Luis Suarez against charges of racism in a radio inteview on Thursday.

"Suarez is not a racist and never will be," Mujica said, adding that the Uruguay international needed to "feel from a distance the human affection that small and great Uruguay has for him."

The Uruguay international was banned for eight matches for racially abusing Manchester United player Patrice Evra. He was then widely criticized last weekend when he refused to shake Evra's hand in their first meeting since the suspension. Evra is black.

Suarez apologized for the snub the following day, when manager Kenny Dalglish also said sorry for his reaction to the non-handshake. The club's shirt sponsor spoke of its disappointment in Suarez's behaviour.

Mujica told the weekly magazine Busqueda that Suarez had received an "exaggerated" punishment.

"Some don't understand that he (Suarez) didn't study diplomatic protocol. He's a great kid on the pitch, a humble person who came from poverty. For this, we love him."

In handing out the eight-match ban, an independent panel of the English Football Assocation rejected Suarez's defence that the word "negro" in Uruguay and other parts of Latin America is inoffensive in certain situations and used as a "friendly form of address to people seen as black or brown-skinned."