Mérida, April 1st 2009 (Venezuelanalysis.com) -- In Venezuela, a controversy has arisen over the unknown whereabouts of a prominent opposition leader and mayor of Maracaibo, Manuel Rosales, who faces corruption charges and is suspected to have fled the country.
National Assembly Legislator Carlos Escarrá, who is also a vice president of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), said in an interview on the state television station on Monday that Rosales secretly fled the country to Panama and may soon re-locate to Miami.
“This person has in a cowardly way fled the country to avoid trial. This attitude is unforgiveable, from my point of view,” said Escarrá, without specifying the source of the information.
Rosales participated in the April 2002 coup d’état against President Hugo Chávez, then ran against Chávez in the 2006 presidential election, which Chávez won in a landslide. Rosales is also the former governor of Zulia state, which produces approximately a third of Venezuela’s daily oil exports and borders Colombia.
Last December, national anti-corruption investigators from the Attorney General’s Office presented evidence that Rosales had illicitly used public funds to accumulate private land and fill offshore bank accounts, and offered and accepted bribes related to public contracts.
The investigation had been prompted by President Chávez’s public declaration that Rosales should be convicted and put in jail for corruption and aiding the infiltration of Colombian paramilitary soldiers in Venezuela.
Based on the investigations, Venezuelan prosecutor Katuiska Plaza filed corruption charges against Rosales two weeks ago in a Zulia state court, and requested an arrest warrant for Rosales. A hearing has been scheduled for April 20th during which the court will decide whether to issue the warrant.
The president of Rosales’s political party A New Era (Un Nuevo Tiempo), Omar Barboza, said it is “totally false that Rosales has fled the country,” and that instead Rosales has gone into hiding in “a safe place in Zulia” to avoid what Barboza called political persecution. “The UNT is taking all necessary actions to protect and assure the physical and personal safety of Manuel Rosales,” Barboza added.
According to Barboza, Rosales has been followed by unidentified armed civilians and national investigators, and several of his private airplane landing strips have been occupied by government security forces. “It is not possible for Manuel Rosales to exercise his right to defense in Venezuela,” said Barboza. “He will not turn himself in to the pack of hounds that is pursuing him until it is possible for him to defend himself.”
On Wednesday, Venezuela’s top public defense attorney, Gabriela Ramírez, assured that all of Rosales’s civil rights including due process have been and will continue to be respected.
The controversy around Rosales comes amidst a broader political clash between the Chávez administration and a group of opposition governors and mayors who were elected last November.
In Zulia, the opposition-dominated state legislature, with the support of Governor Pablo Pérez, declared itself in “rebellion” against the national government recently in reaction to the transfer of the administration of strategic transportation hubs to the national government.
Following this, Rosales’s case was transferred to a Caracas court on the grounds that the political unrest in Zulia would impede a fair trial.
On Wednesday, the president of the National Assembly, Cilia Flores, said the judicial process established in Venezuela’s Constitution and laws should proceed as usual with regard to Rosales. “The judicial process should continue. Security forces should implement a search plan to determine where he is,” said Flores.
Flores added that if Rosales is absent from his post as mayor of Maracaibo for more than 90 days, he will be considered to have abandoned the office, and the people of Maracaibo may elect a new mayor in a popular vote.