Chavez opponent says he won't bow out of race

October 21, 2011 - 6:06 PM

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A prominent opponent of President Hugo Chavez said Tuesday that he won't bow out of the presidential race despite a contradictory Supreme Court ruling that upheld a ban on him holding office yet also said he could be a candidate.

In a televised speech, former Caracas district Mayor Leopoldo Lopez vowed to compete in a February primary that will pick a single opposition candidate to face Chavez in October 2012.

"I can and I'm going to be a candidate for the presidency!" he told cheering supporters. Lopez said the court's decision was "confusing" yet also made clear he would be permitted to run.

As for whether he should be elected, he said, "that decision corresponds only to the Venezuelan people, to the popular will!"

The country's Supreme Court on Monday upheld a decision by the country's top anti-corruption official disqualifying Lopez from holding office until 2014. The ruling, however, also said that Lopez may still run for office if he chooses.

It remains unclear how far Lopez might be able to go with his candidacy. Anti-corruption official Adelina Gonzalez reiterated on Tuesday that Lopez will be barred from holding public office until 2014.

Gonzalez, the acting comptroller general, told state television that based on the ruling, Lopez "won't be able to hold public posts, neither by election nor by appointment."

Polls have shown the former mayor is a strong contender, though trailing behind others such as state governors Henrique Capriles and Pablo Perez. Polls also suggest Chavez could face a particularly tough re-election fight next year after 13 years in office.

Lopez is on a list of hundreds of politicians who have been barred from holding office in the past decade due to corruption investigations, but he insists he is innocent and notes he was never sentenced in a court.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court dismissed as "unfeasible" a decision by the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights that had sided with Lopez and said his political rights had been violated.

The temporary prohibition on Lopez holding office resulted from multiple allegations. One is that a nonprofit group to which Lopez belonged had received donations from 1998 to 2001 from the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, where he and his mother worked at the time.

The comptroller general also sanctioned Lopez in 2004 for alleged irregularities in the movement of funds from one portion of his budget to another during his term as mayor.

Lopez challenged his disqualification in the Inter-American court, arguing his political rights had been violated. The court ruled on Sept. 1 that Venezuelan electoral officials should allow him to run.

The Supreme Court, however, said the measure barring Lopez from holding public office "does not impede him from exercising his political rights." It added that the "administrative disqualification ... is directed only at temporarily impeding the exercise of public duties."

The organization Human Rights Watch called the Supreme Court's decision a major blow to the rule of law in Venezuela and one more indication that Chavez and his allies have "neutralized the independence of Venezuela's judiciary."

"The Venezuelan Supreme Court today basically belongs to President Chavez," Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for the New York-based organization, said in an emailed statement.

Many of the current Supreme Court magistrates were appointed by pro-Chavez lawmakers who dominated the previous National Assembly before opposition candidates increased their presence in 2010 elections.

"Its rulings have repeatedly sought to protect the president's political agenda, not to uphold basic human rights," said Vivanco, who has repeatedly clashed with Chavez's government.

Vivanco was himself expelled from Venezuela in 2008 after the government accused them of illegally meddling in the country's affairs, just hours after he and a colleague presented a report that criticized Chavez's human rights record.

Chavez vehemently denies holding sway over the courts or prosecutors, insisting they are autonomous and act according to the law.

The Supreme Court echoed some of Chavez's criticisms of the regional human rights court in its ruling, accusing it of "usurping functions as if it were colonial power and trying to impose, on a sovereign and independent nation, political and ideological judgments that are absolutely incompatible with our constitutional system."