- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

CARACAS, VENEZUELA (AP) - A leading opponent of President Hugo Chavez has decided to seek political asylum abroad rather than face a corruption charge in a trial he says would be stacked against him, an ally said Monday.

Opposition leader Manuel Rosales, who went into hiding three weeks ago, decided not to appear in court Monday because the case against him is being used for “political persecution,” said Omar Barboza, who heads Rosales’ political party.

“He won’t present himself before a court that’s been turned into a political tool,” Barboza told reporters. “When there’s a state of law in Venezuela, Manuel Rosales will then go before the courts, but until then he will be judged by the Venezuelan people.”

A party committee is already processing Rosales’ asylum request, Barboza said. He declined to name the country in which the request had been filed, saying only that it is a “friendly country.”

Rosales, who ran unsuccessfully against Chavez in the country’s 2006 presidential election, has been accused of illegal enrichment between 2000 and 2004 when he was governor of Venezuela’s western Zulia state. Prosecutors are seeking his arrest, but a court has yet to approve the charge or decide if he should be detained while awaiting trial.

Rosales temporarily stepped down as mayor of Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city, to go into hiding in March. He has denied the charges, calling them a “political lynching.”

Barboza said Rosales will continue a “democratic struggle” from abroad and plans to deliver a message to Venezuela within two days.

Some Chavez allies have speculated that Rosales has left the country, but his family and supporters have insisted that he remains in western Venezuela.

Chavez’s government had no immediate response to the announcement, but he has denied pressuring prosecutors or judges to sideline his adversaries, insisting that opponents accused of pocketing public funds are “criminals” who should face justice.

Opponents say that targeted corruption probes, laws that shift power away from opposition-held offices, and other moves by Chavez’s allies in the courts and legislature represent a power grab by the leftist leader.

Rosales’s wife, Evelyn Trejo, told a crowd of supporters in Maracaibo that she a fair trial for her husband. Recalling that Chavez last year called for Rosales to go to prison, she said, “let’s lift our voices of protest against this regime.”

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