- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela The Supreme Court of Venezuela late yesterday dismissed all charges against four military officers accused of leading a coup against President Hugo Chavez.
The ruling, a clear setback to Mr. Chavez, who had reshuffled Venezuela's judiciary after his 1998 election and had counted on its loyalty to his leftist revolution, sparked clashes between troops and pro-government protesters that wounded at least three persons.
National guardsmen in armored personnel carriers hurled tear-gas canisters and fired shots into the air to disperse Chavez supporters who tried to storm the court after the ruling.
Violence eased but the situation remained tense after Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel appealed for calm. Protesters had fired sporadic shots toward troops and set fire to trash and tires.
"Respect the Supreme Court's decision. Respect the rules of democracy," Mr. Rangel pleaded on Globovision television.
Two national guardsmen and a cameraman for Radio Caracas Television were wounded in the fracas.
The U.S. Embassy urged its citizens to avoid the area in downtown Caracas.
The protests came after the court dismissed rebellion charges against four top officers by an 11-8 vote, ruling that the attorney general had insufficient evidence.
Opponents, seeking once more to oust Mr. Chavez, have filed complaints with the court accusing him of corruption, accepting illegal campaign contributions and responsibility for slayings during the coup.
Mr. Chavez denies any wrongdoing.
Army Gen. Efrain Vasquez, navy Rear Adm. Hector Ramirez Perez, Vice Adm. Daniel Comisso Urdaneta and air force Gen. Pedro Pereira had been charged with rebellion, which could have carried 30-year prison terms.
Hundreds of "Chavistas" street groups supporting the Venezuelan president fought last week with police outside the court and in downtown Caracas in clashes that left 24 persons wounded. Yesterday, two pipe bombs exploded outside Gen. Vasquez's home.
Mr. Chavez had warned that his government would not tolerate a vote exonerating the officers. He later said he would respect the court's decision, while ruling party lawmakers said they would propose a congressional investigation into the "ethical conduct" of some justices.
"The Venezuelan people demand justice. They must put the coup plotters in prison," said ruling party deputy Cesar Lopez.
For Chavistas, the accused officers were symbols of "fascist" elements in the military, business and labor involved in an April 12-14 coup.
Mr. Chavez was ousted after 18 persons were killed in an opposition demonstration April 11. On the brink of exile, he was restored by loyalist troops on the wave of a popular rebellion against the coup.
Business leader Pedro Carmona, who swore himself in as president on April 13 and dissolved the Supreme Court, congress and the constitution, received asylum in Colombia, angering Chavistas.
The defendants based their case on the role of Gen. Lucas Rincon, the armed forces commander who announced to the world that Mr. Chavez had resigned, a claim the president denied.
Gen. Rincon said he spoke without knowing that Mr. Chavez had retracted an offer to resign. He became defense minister when Mr. Chavez purged the armed forces after the coup, and then retired.
The defendants said they worked with Mr. Carmona to fill a dangerous power vacuum created by Mr. Chavez's ouster. They also argued that Mr. Chavez's order April 11 to deploy troops against civilians was unconstitutional.

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