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A crackdown on Chavez opponents?

Faced with corruption charges, a leading opposition figure goes into exile.

Supporters of Maracaibo's mayor Manuel Rosales take part in a demonstration in Maracaibo April 20, 2009. Rosales, Venezuela's top opposition leader, is seeking asylum abroad and will not appear in court to face corruption charges brought by President Hugo Chavez's government. (Isaac Urrutia/Reuters)

CARACAS, Venezuela — A leading Venezuelan opposition figure went into exile Monday after refusing to attend a tribunal where he is being tried on corruption charges.

Manuel Rosales, the mayor of Venezuela’s second-largest city, Maracaibo, and an opponent of Hugo Chavez in the 2006 presidential elections, has sought political asylum in a “friendly country,” his party, A New Era, announced Monday.

The attorney general’s office alleges that Rosales siphoned off public funds into foreign bank accounts and dipped into state coffers to buy private land while he was governor of the state of Zulia between 2000 and 2004.

Rosales, meanwhile, has pleaded innocent and says the charges are a “political lynching.”

The case against Rosales is just the latest such move by the government against Venezuela’s opposition, which claims Chavez’s administration is using the legal system to crush leaders who won key posts in November’s regional elections.

Last week, the National Assembly — which is 90 percent controlled by Chavez’s United Socialist Parties of Venezuela — passed a law that appears to strip Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma of most of his powers.

The law split the city in two along east-west lines and created a new body that will oversee the management of a new Capital District, which will include the Municipality of Libertador, the largest of Caracas’s five municipalities and the only one still controlled by Chavez’s PSUV party. Jacqueline Faria, the PSUV party leader in the state of Zulia, has been appointed the new body's chief.

It remains uncertain how the city will be overseen. Ledezma said he was still unclear about how many of his powers remain, although it is believed he may have lost oversight of hospitals, policing, transportation, urban planning, gas and electricity distribution and emergency and disaster management.

What is clear is that in geographical terms, Ledezma has lost half the city.

The law states that all funds that the government used to give to the mayor — who would then evenly distribute them among the five municipalities — will now be managed by the new Capital District.

“They say it doesn't affect the rest of the city. In reality it does,” said Juan Vicente Carrasquero, a political scientist at the Simon Bolivar University in Caracas. “How do you create a Capital District that doesn't affect the other areas?”

On Wednesday, PSUV party leader Faria took charge of the mayor’s office in Caracas, a building Ledezma has been unable to enter since he was elected Nov. 23 because it has been occupied by militant supporters of Chavez.

Asked by the daily El Universal if it was fair that the new post should be occupied by an unelected official, Faria replied: “The fingers of Chavez are the fingers of the people. His fingers want what is best for Caracas.”