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Venezuelan Court Decision Sparks Street Protests in Caracas - 2002-08-14

Disturbances broke out on the streets of Caracas late Wednesday after the Venezuelan supreme court voted 11-8 to reject a bid from the government to put four senior military officers on trial for their role in April's frustrated coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez.

A crowd of several hundred Chavez supporters had gathered in the vicinity of the courthouse, on the edge of downtown Caracas, to protest against the anticipated decision. Pro-Chavez activist Lina Ron declared that if the decision favoured the officers, the demonstrators would occupy the court, "physically if necessary."

As the decision became known, the demonstrators broke through a cordon of 120 police and threw bottles and rocks at a national guard riot squad. They were repelled with teargas and birdshot. As clashes continued, a news cameraman for Venezuela's RCTV channel was shot in the leg, allegedly by pro-government demonstrators.

The court's decision is seen as a key turning point in the opposition campaign to oust the leftwing president.

Congressman Nicolas Maduro, of the ruling MVR party, said it marked the beginning of a second coup - this time by institutional means. And labour leader Carlos Ortega, a prominent opposition figure, said this week would be a crucial one in the removal or consolidation of the president.

A score of charges have been laid against Mr. Chavez by his opponents which could lead to his impeachment. They range from human rights abuses to misuse of government funds.

Mr. Chavez himself warned the supreme court last Sunday against taking the "wrong" decision. And on Wednesday he repeated the warning. "The future of the referee [that is, the court] is in the hands of the referee itself," he said.

Some of the president's leading supporters have suggested that a popular referendum, or even the convening of an assembly empowered to draw up a new constitution, is needed. The country's constitution was last re-drafted as recently as 1999. That was the year Mr. Chavez, a former military officer who himself once led a failed coup, came to power.

Most analysts, however, doubt that the president retains sufficient support, either among the electorate or in the armed forces, to sustain decisions of this nature.

Recent opinion polls suggest his popularity rating, once over 80 percent, is now between 30 and 35 percent.