OAS Court Rules for Venezuela Presidential Aspirant Lopez

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ordered Venezuela to lift a ban preventing an opponent of Hugo Chavez from challenging the president in next year’s elections.

The ruling from the San Jose, Costa Rica-based court, the judicial arm of the Organization of American States, directs the electoral council to ensure that Leopoldo Lopez isn’t prohibited from being a candidate, Carlos Vecchio, coordinator of Lopez’s political party Voluntad Popular, told reporters in Caracas today. The court also ordered the government to pay Lopez $12,000 in costs.

“We did it,” Lopez wrote on his Twitter account. “Justice was done. I have been cleared.”

Lopez has said he plans to participate in a Feb. 12 primary to elect a single opposition candidate to run against Chavez in elections scheduled for Oct. 7 next year. Chavez, who is suffering from cancer, said this week he will recover in time to secure 10 million votes next year and win by a “knockout” against opposition “scum.”

Lopez, twice mayor of the Caracas municipality of Chacao, was first placed on a blacklist in 2005 by the Comptroller General’s office. The accusations against him involve a donation from state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, where he previously worked, to Primero Justicia, a former non-government organization of which Lopez was a member that has now become a political party.

Earmarked Funds

A second charge involves the transfer of earmarked funds in the municipality of Chacao to cover local salary and services costs.

Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said the government would study the court’s decision before deciding whether to respect it. He also stated that the private media are using Lopez’s case to attack the government.

“The proof is there, the testimonies,” Maduro said in comments broadcast on state television. “These are decisions taken based on our laws, so why don’t the media publish that? It seems that in Venezuela just being in the opposition is a license for crime.”

The Comptroller General’s office said that the court’s decision was illegal and would promote corruption, state news service AVN reported today, citing a statement from the agency.

“The ruling not only goes against the human rights of all Venezuelans, but against the judicial order of our country,” the office said, according to AVN. “It erodes the defense of human rights, which is the real victim of corruption.”

Lopez has never been tried, and has said only a judge has the constitutional power to ban a political candidate.

‘Political Tool’

“The members of the Court were utterly clear in their judgment -- the use of political disqualification as a deliberate strategy to suppress those who challenge the status quo will not be tolerated,” Lopez said in an e-mailed statement. “This practice has subverted the political rights of all Venezuelan citizens and should never again be utilized as a political tool.”

Lopez’s lawyer Enrique Sanchez Falcon said the government may take no action until Lopez puts himself forward as a presidential candidate, which wouldn’t occur unless he won the primary.

“We will know if the state adheres to the decision when the electoral council accepts Leopoldo Lopez’s bid as candidate for the elections,” Sanchez Falcon told reporters in Caracas. “His candidacy for the primary is different because it’s an internal election among parties.”

Front Runner

The government may decide to respect the decision in order to take votes away from opposition front runner Henrique Capriles Radonski, said Boris Segura, Latin America strategist with Nomura Securities International Inc. Denying the ruling would reflect poorly on the government, he said.

“Lopez was polling strongly until people began to think he wouldn’t be allowed to take part, and I don’t think five months is enough time to recuperate those losses,” Segura said in a phone interview from New York. “If they allow him to run it would be to weaken Capriles, with whom he shares a similar profile. This sentence will change the dynamics within the opposition.”

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