CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan prosecutors formally charged a leading opposition figure with corruption on Thursday, as President Hugo Chavez pushed forward with plans for a referendum to end term limits.
Manuel Rosales was charged with presumed illicit enrichment during his two terms as governor of oil-rich Zulia state. The crime is punishable by three to 10 years in prison.
The popular opposition leader — who lost to Chavez in the 2006 presidential election — has denied any wrongdoing, saying the accusations are politically motivated.
"They are trying to lynch me politically in order to remove me from the political map," he said.
The charges are based on a 2002-2004 investigation into Rosales' conduct as governor, prosecutors said in a statement. Details of the accusations were not immediately clear.
But Rosales said the investigation was reopened in a "suspicious manner" as Chavez campaigned for his candidates in November's mayoral and gubernatorial elections.
Chavez's candidates won the majority of state and local posts, but the opposition captured five governorships — including three of Venezuela's most populous states — and the Caracas mayor's office.
"Since then, they have accentuated this campaign to criminalize those who oppose the government," Rosales said. He lamented he could be prevented from serving in his elected position as mayor of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city.
Following the elections, Chavez announced plans to hold a referendum to abolish term limits, which could take place as early as February.
He kicked off a signature drive Thursday — largely a symbolic process, as loyal lawmakers have already put the referendum's wheels in motion.
If Chavez were to continue in office it would be a "guarantee of peace," he told supporters, adding that an opposition victory "would be chaos for Venezuela."