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Last Updated: Friday, 30 April, 2004, 20:37 GMT 21:37 UK
Storm over Venezuela court reform
Anti-Chavez referendum campaign posters, November 2003
Opponents of Chavez want to force a referendum on his presidency
Opposition leaders in Venezuela have sharply criticised controversial new reforms to the Supreme Court.

The new law, passed by parliament after a 16-hour session, increases the number of Supreme Court judges from 20 to 32.

The opposition says the move will allow President Hugo Chavez to appoint more sympathetic judges and, in effect, dominate the judiciary.

It comes as the Supreme Court is considering an opposition bid for a referendum on Mr Chavez's presidency.

Critics of the reform include the governor of Miranda state, Enrique Mendoza, who called it "one more act of abuse that defines the totalitarian and centrist vision of this regime".

Legal tangle

The Supreme Court said on Thursday that it would rule within a month on the validity of more than 870,000 disputed signatures, collected by the opposition as part of a petition for the referendum.

Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) had said they were invalid because the signatories had not entered their own personal details, allowing organisers to do it for them.

The signatures are among nearly 1.2 million which the CNE says must be checked before they can count towards the opposition's tally.

The opposition already has 1.9 million approved signatures and needs a total of more than 2.4 million to trigger the vote.

Last week, the CNE said it would announce on 4 June whether the referendum, tentatively scheduled for 8 August, would go ahead.

The CNE says disputed signatures must be checked over a five-day period beginning on 27 May.

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