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Venezuelan Court Rules Against Chavez in Recall

Justices rule that signatures on petitions to oust the president do not need to be validated.

March 16, 2004|From Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela's Supreme Court gave a major boost Monday to opponents of President Hugo Chavez, ruling that signatures on recall petitions do not need to be validated.

The court overturned a decision by the National Elections Council to force more than 870,000 citizens to confirm they signed the petitions seeking a vote to recall Chavez. The court ordered the council to accept those signatures unless citizens come forward to say they had not signed.

The ruling, while not guaranteeing a recall, was a big victory for Chavez's opponents, who had said the council's decision had made the referendum nearly impossible. If the citizens don't come forward, the opposition will have more than enough signatures to trigger the vote.

Opposition leaders called for celebratory rallies and planned a march to the Supreme Court today.

Venezuela's state television urged Chavez supporters to stage a counterdemonstration at the Supreme Court, raising the possibility of clashes in a nation deeply divided between those who accuse Chavez of becoming increasingly autocratic and those who believe he speaks for the poor.

At least nine people died and scores were injured two weeks ago during clashes between National Guard troops and Chavez opponents protesting the election council's decision.

"The elections council has no choice but to accept [the Supreme Court's] decision," said Enrique Mendoza, head of a coalition of opposition parties. But the government immediately appealed the high court decision, said Freddy Bernal, mayor of the federal district of Caracas and a Chavez confidant.

The ruling was made by the Supreme Court's electoral chamber and can be overturned by its constitutional chamber. The court, made up of 20 magistrates, is divided into several chambers that rule on different areas of law.

Chavez insists that many signatures were duplicated or belong to dead people, minors or foreigners.

The Organization of American States and the U.S.-based Carter Center, which are observing the recall process, say they have seen no evidence of widespread fraud. The two groups have led international efforts to bring Venezuela's political crisis to a peaceful resolution after a failed 2002 coup and a crippling general strike last year.

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