July 12, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Thousands of Venezuelans protested in the capital on Saturday to demand the Supreme Court overturn a "blacklist" blocking key opponents of President Hugo Chavez from running in upcoming elections.
Chanting "freedom!" and waving Venezuelan flags, the demonstrators marched to the court, where they urged justices to strike down the list.
"We cannot allow our civil rights to be trampled upon," said Veronica Pino, a 35-year-old secretary who held a sign reading: "Restrictions, No! Constitution, Yes!"
Journalists estimated the protesters numbered nearly 10,000. No official crowd estimates were offered by authorities.
Unveiled in February by the country's top anti-corruption official, the list disqualifies 272 politicians - most of them aligned with the opposition - from participating in November's state and municipal elections.
Comptroller General Clodosbaldo Russian, a close Chavez ally, argues that Venezuelan law allows him to impose the restrictions on potential candidates suspected of corruption.
Opposition leaders say the ban violates Venezuela's constitution, which upholds the political rights of all citizens unless they have been charged with a crime and sentenced by a court. None of those on the list have been formally sentenced.
Venezuela's Roman Catholic Church joined in the mounting criticism this week, calling the list "a measure that tarnishes the democratic environment."
More than a dozen members of the 1999 assembly that drafted the current constitution, including Chavez's ex-wife Marisabel Rodriguez, accuse Russian of violating the law.
The comptroller general is "illegally excluding those who don't share the president's socialist agenda," she said Saturday during the march, where she was mobbed by supporters.
Chavez has backed Russian.
"Now they accuse him of following my orders. No, they are not my orders," Chavez said Friday at a rally. The protesters "should be ashamed of themselves" for defending candidates suspected of corruption, many of whom should be in prison, he added.
Many protesters said they have low expectations for redress from the Supreme Court, whose justices were appointed by the Chavista-dominated National Assembly and are widely perceived to be government-friendly.
But opposition leader Oscar Perez predicted the court will have no choice but to throw out the list "because the constitution is very clear."
Supreme Court president Luisa Estella Morales said Friday that the tribunal is an independent body that will not "accept pressure from protests or the government."