World News

Venezuelans protest bid to arrest opposition leader

MARACAIBO (Reuters) - Thousands of Venezuelans protested on Friday against an attempt to arrest opposition leader Manuel Rosales on corruption charges, in a march that swelled a main avenue of the oil city of Maracaibo.

Supporters of Maracaibo's city mayor Manuel Rosales take part in an demonstration in Maracaibo, March 19, 2009. REUTERS/Isaac Urrutia

In a rare show of unity, opposition leaders from different political parties joined the march and spoke out against the bid to detain Rosales, which they said was a case of political persecution by socialist President Hugo Chavez.

“What they want to do to Manuel Rosales is not a trial, it’s a political lynching,” Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma said at the march, where protesters waved photos of Rosales, the most public face of Venezuela’s fractured opposition.

The public prosecutor on Thursday asked a court for a warrant to arrest Rosales, a former presidential candidate who is mayor of Maracaibo, the second-largest city in the OPEC nation. The prosecutor on Friday requested Rosales’ case be moved from Zulia, where he has wide support.

Since winning a February referendum allowing him to run for office as often as he likes, Chavez has moved to restrict the power of opposition mayors and governors, stripping local government of responsibility for ports and airports and putting some police forces and hospitals in the hands of central government.

Housewife Eleana Nava said she was at the march because she was worried about the Chavez moves to centralize power.

“I’m worried; today it is the ports and the airports but before long they’ll go after education,” said Nava, 40.

Chavez has invested heavily in education, but many government opponents fear he plans to create a curriculum infused with socialist ideology.

Rosales denies the charge he became inexplicably wealthy during his time as governor of Zulia state and says the move against him was ordered by Chavez.

Corruption is widespread in oil-dependent Venezuela but charges are rarely brought against members of the government.

Chavez said last year Rosales should be arrested, accusing him of corruption, working with organized crime and supporting a coup that briefly ousted the president seven years ago.

Chavez has in the past threatened political opponents with legal cases, but his government rarely jails them. Several opposition leaders were imprisoned after the 2002 coup.

Last year the government used corruption charges to block several key figures from state and city elections in which the opposition won key states and cities, including Caracas.

Reporting by Angery Lozano; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Eric Walsh