Venezuelan congress lifts ex-Chavez ally's immunity

Opposition lawmaker Wilmer Azuaje is accused of striking a police official.

Chavez gestures 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Chavez gestures 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Venezuela's National Assembly, dominated by allies of President Hugo Chavez, has voted to lift the parliamentary immunity of an opposition lawmaker who is accused of striking a police official.
The vote late Friday to strip Wilmer Azuaje of his immunity from prosecution comes as critics are accusing Chavez's government of targeting his foes with laws that are ignored when broken by his friends.
A former Chavez ally, Azuaje has alleged corruption by members of Chavez's family in their home state of Barinas — accusations the family has denied.
"I haven't committed any crime," Azuaje said Saturday after 105 lawmakers voted for the measure to remove his immunity and six opposed it. Azuaje also argued a two-thirds majority for the full 167-seat assembly, 112 votes, was required.
Azuaje appeared in court Saturday night and said he was released on the condition he return to court every 20 days while awaiting trial.
"All Venezuelans know that I'm getting a political trial," he told reporters outside the courthouse.
Police official Yuraima Castillo has accused Azuaje of verbally abusing her and grabbing and hitting her on the shoulder during an argument while he was picking up a car that had been stolen from his mother and recovered by police.
He was detained Thursday. Prosecutors accused Azuaje of insulting a public official and breaking a law that prohibits violence against women, the state-run Bolivarian News Agency said.
Venezuela's Supreme Court asked the National Assembly to decide whether to lift Azuaje's immunity — a rare step usually reserved for crimes such as corruption.
Globovision, the only remaining anti-Chavez television channel, noted lawmakers took no such action in 2007 when pro-Chavez lawmaker Iris Varela repeatedly slapped a journalist in the face and hit him with a microphone. The channel replayed that on-air confrontation Friday as lawmakers were considering whether to lift Azuaje's immunity.
Chavez's critics and human rights groups say the government is increasingly using the courts to prosecute its opponents while ignoring other acts by Chavez's allies.
In the past week, an opposition politician and the owner of Globovision were charged for making remarks against Chavez and his government that authorities deemed false and offensive.
Chavez's opponents say the courts are biased against them, noting the president's congressional allies have loaded the Supreme Court with justices perceived as friendly to the government.
Chavez denies holding sway over the courts and says the legal system is functioning properly by impartially trying those who have broken the law.
Azuaje has alleged that some of the president's brothers profited from family power and acquired ranches during their father's decade-long tenure as Barinas state governor from 1998 through 2008, when the president's older brother, Adan, was elected to succeed him in their rural home state.
Venezuela's authorities say they have found no evidence of wrongdoing by the president's family.
Azuajesaid the government made a show of lifting his immunity to divertattention from problems that have hurt Chavez's popularity, includingelectricity shortages and soaring inflation.
"That's what Chavezis doing: jailing political leaders to try to distract people'sattention," Azuaje said, calling Chavez a "coward" and accusing him ofusing the judicial and legislative branches of government to go afteropponents.
Azuaje said he plans to run for re-election in September congressional elections and said: "They aren't going to silence me."