- The Washington Times - Monday, August 26, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela Mohamed Merhi and his son Jesus were among hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters marching toward the presidential palace on April 11 when shots rang out, tear gas clouds billowed and Mr. Merhi lost track of his son amid the panic.
By the day's end Mr. Merhi would learn that Jesus was killed by a sniper's bullet, along with 17 others.
A landmark ruling by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice earlier this month gave Mr. Merhi hope of obtaining what he considers justice for his son's death and perhaps even removing from office President Hugo Chavez, whom Mr. Merhi believes is responsible for the decision to fire on demonstrators.
Mr. Merhi and a group of other April 11 victims and their families have a case before the tribunal charging the president with crimes against humanity.
"I am trying very hard to believe that the court will admit our case," Mr. Merhi said. "[The magistrates] are human, they have sons, they are fathers."
In an 11-8 ruling this month, the tribunal ruled that there was insufficient evidence to try four military officials for participating in April's coup in which Mr. Chavez was ousted for 48 hours.
Opponents of Mr. Chavez consider the ruling significant because the justices sided against the president.
The decision "is a political defeat which opens the road toward the trial of the chief of state," editorialized El Universal newspaper.
The charismatic and combative Mr. Chavez can still count on the support of the attorney general and a majority, albeit a shrinking one, in the National Assembly. Both would have to endorse any legal action against the president.
And a substantial portion of Venezuelans, particularly the poor, back the populist Mr. Chavez with passion.
Yet there are several other signs that the president is losing his hold on the government. His majority in the 165-member parliament is down to about five deputies.
Mr. Chavez's popularity, which rebounded after April 11, is dropping again as the economy shrinks and financial scandals buffet his administration, polls say.
Constitutional experts say that Mr. Merhi's case, because it charges "crimes against humanity," might not require approval by the attorney general and National Assembly.
The tribunal could decide whether to hear Mr. Merhi's case soon after Sept. 15, the date the court returns from a monthlong recess.
Mr. Chavez recently called the magistrates "immoral" and said: "We've got to get them out of there."
In recent weeks, armed pro-Chavez groups have been battling police on the streets of Caracas in protests against the court decision.
Luis Cortez, president of one such group, the 6.000-member Bolivarian Circle of Motorcyclists, said, "There won't be another [anti-Chavez] verdict because we won't permit it."
But Mr. Merhi, who says he has strong evidence that Chavez supporters planned the April 11 killings of his son and others, promises to pursue the case even beyond Venezuela if necessary.
"We're going for international action, similar to Pinochet," he said in reference to the arrest in Britain of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet. "The world will hear about this pretty soon."

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