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Page last updated at 06:29 GMT, Friday, 12 December 2008

Venezuela opposition head charged

Manuel Rosales arrives at the state prosecutor's office in Caracas (11 December 2008)
Manuel Rosales has strenuously denied all the allegations

Prosecutors in Venezuela have charged one of the main opposition leaders in connection with alleged corruption and misappropriation of funds.

The charges against Manuel Rosales stem from the hiring of a private firm to run a lottery when he was governor of Zulia state several years ago.

Mr Rosales has accused the government of concocting charges against him in order to remove him from politics.

He stood against Hugo Chavez in the last presidential election in 2006.

Mr Rosales's indictment came two weeks after the president said he would seek the constitutional changes necessary to allow him to stand for indefinite re-election. A referendum is expected in February.

'Criminalising opposition'

State prosecutors said the charges of "illicit enrichment" which Mr Rosales faces were based on a government investigation from 2002 to 2004 into his assets, and his conduct as governor of Zulia.

Today we've come to confront this political lynching that they are trying to do, a terrorist trial, a political trial
Manuel Rosales
Mayor of Maracaibo

Mr Rosales, who was recently elected mayor of second largest city, Maracaibo, has denied any wrongdoing and says the charges are politically motivated.

"Today we've come to confront this political lynching that they are trying to do, a terrorist trial, a political trial," Mr Rosales told a news conference on Thursday.

"The only thing missing is for them to investigate me for the assassination of [former US President] John Fitzgerald Kennedy."

Mr Rosales said the authorities had re-opened the investigation into his time as Zulia governor in a "suspicious manner" during November's regional elections.

Hugo Chavez (30 November 2008)
Mr Chavez threatened Mr Rosales with prison during the regional elections

"Since then, they have accentuated this campaign to criminalise those who oppose the government," he added.

During the recent regional election campaign, Mr Chavez repeatedly threatened Mr Rosales with prison, taunting him at rallies by saying that a prison cell was waiting for him.

Adverts featuring alleged telephone conversations made by Mr Rosales, in which he was accused of receiving illegal gifts for his business partners and wife, were also put out by the government.

The Communications Minister, Jesse Chacon, insisted earlier this week that the charges against Mr Rosales had nothing to do with politics.

If convicted, Mr Rosales could face between three and 10 years in prison. He would also lose his post of mayor of Maracaibo.

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