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Chavez Opponents March in Venezuela

Thousands decry the detention of backers of a referendum on the leader's rule.

March 21, 2004|From Reuters

CARACAS, Venezuela — Several thousand opponents of President Hugo Chavez marched in Caracas, the capital, Saturday to protest what they condemned as political persecution and to demand a referendum on the leftist leader's rule.

Chanting "Liberty!" and waving national flags, the protesters assailed what they called the illegal detention of opposition supporters during pro-referendum demonstrations in late February and early this month that ended in violence.

At least nine people were killed in clashes with troops during the protests over a ruling by electoral authorities that the opposition initially failed to hand over the minimum 2.4 million signatures needed for a recall vote.

"We demand due process and respect of our guaranteed constitutional rights for all our political prisoners and persecuted," the opposition said in a letter presented to the attorney general.

Anti-Chavez leaders also denounced a detention order against Henrique Capriles, the opposition mayor of a Caracas-area municipality, who the government says failed to quell a violent demonstration in front of the Cuban Embassy during a coup attempt against Chavez in 2002.

The campaign for a referendum is the latest challenge to Chavez; his opponents accuse him of governing the world's No. 5 oil exporter as a dictator and destroying the economy.

Chavez says his self-proclaimed "revolution" eases the plight of Venezuela's impoverished, and he accuses his political enemies of plotting to overthrow him. He says the referendum petition is riddled with fraud.

The opposition says the National Electoral Council and other institutions are biased in favor of Chavez. More than 800,000 additional disputed signatures that could determine whether the referendum goes ahead are caught in a legal tussle between two branches of Venezuela's politically divided Supreme Court.

"I think that we are witnessing the implosion of our institutions. The most clear demonstration is a justice system that is completely politicized and at the service of the government," opposition leader Julio Borges told reporters during the march.

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