Venezuela court blocks destruction of voter lists

February 15, 2012 - 12:05 AM
Venezuela Chavez Challenger

Venezuelan presidential candidate Henrique Capriles smiles during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday Feb. 13, 2012. Capriles, who won Venezuela's first-ever opposition presidential primary Sunday, is calling for "balanced elections," criticizing the use of government money and slanted coverage in state media as President Hugo Chavez seeks re-election. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered opposition electoral officials not to destroy lists of voters following primary elections, a decision that was promptly condemned by opposition leaders who vowed to keep voters' identities secret.

The court order was sought by Rafael Velasquez, a mayoral contender who lost in Sunday's primary and called for the voter lists to be reviewed.

But opposition politicians said the decision appeared to be an attempt to intimidate adversaries of President Hugo Chavez.

"The government is never going to be able to expropriate the vote of our people. It's never going to be able to expropriate hope," opposition leader Henrique Capriles said during a speech Tuesday night at an event where he was formally proclaimed the presidential candidate..

Referring to the Supreme Court decision, Capriles said it appears to be part of an attempt to "instill fear."

Capriles also focused his message on pledging a stronger economy and better schools, and on differentiating his candidacy from that of Chavez.

"Our government will be for everyone. The bus of progress has its doors open," Capriles told the crowd, reading a prepared speech. On election day, he said, "it will be up to us to choose between two paths: the path of progress that you want, or the path of socialism that the government wants for you."

The 39-year-old state governor will face Chavez in the Oct. 7 presidential election. Sunday's primary vote also determined opposition candidates for state and local races across the country.

"The secrecy of the vote is a commitment, and we're going to keep it," opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez said in response to the ruling. "There will be no court decision ... that will prevent what's happening to keep happening: that more Venezuelans are joining."

After a failed 2004 recall vote against Chavez, a list of those who had petitioned for the election was leaked and widely circulated. Hundreds of people complained that after appearing on the list, they were fired from government jobs or prevented from working for the government.

Chavez's government denied discriminating against those who appeared on that list.

The Supreme Court ruled that within 24 hours the books with voters' names should be turned over to the National Electoral Council, the court said in a statement.

Velasquez told reporters that he had a right as a candidate to request a review of the lists of voters in the primary elections. Velasquez asserted there were irregularities, saying "it didn't work as it should have."

He didn't publicly explain in detail why he thought it necessary to review the lists.

Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, who heads the opposition coalition, called the court's decision "absurd."

"After failed attempts by the government to sabotage the (election) day and to distort its significance, they turn to the 'dossier of fear,'" Aveledo said in a statement. He said many of the lists had already been destroyed.

Opposition election chief Teresa Albanes said, however, that not all of the lists had been destroyed.

Small clashes broke out between police and government opponents in the cities of Maracay and Barquisimeto on Tuesday as the authorities tried to detain members of the local election committees to seize voting materials. Officials did not immediately provide details about what occurred.

But Lopez said in that in Maracay one young man died when he was hit accidentally by a police truck during a clash between police and government opponents who were protesting the detention of an election worker and the seizure of voter lists.

Ramon Jose Medina, a member of the opposition's electoral commission, said he is worried about "the way they're using the Supreme Court."

The books were used for voters to sign before casting their ballots. About 3 million opposition supporters cast ballots in the elections.

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Associated Press writer Ian James contributed to this report.