Chavez foe launches presidential bid in Venezuela

By JORGE RUEDA | September 24, 2011 | 3:45 PM EDT

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A Venezuelan opposition leader launched his presidential campaign Saturday, challenging President Hugo Chavez to accept him in the race after a human rights court overturned a ban on his candidacy.

Leopoldo Lopez said in a speech to thousands of Venezuelans that Chavez shouldn't try to prevent him from running.

"Since 2008, he's been looking for a mechanism to remove me from the political game," Lopez said. "Mr. President, I ask myself: Are you afraid of me?"

Venezuela's top anti-corruption official had barred Lopez from running for office, but the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights earlier this month ordered election officials to allow him to run.

Chavez has criticized the court's decision. Government and electoral officials say they will await a decision on the matter by Venezuela's Supreme Court.

"Rights aren't begged for nor given. Rights are conquered and fought for. We fought for our right and we conquered it," Lopez told the cheering crowd.

He urged Chavez to accept the ruling and not "hide behind" other public institutions. Lopez said former Latin American strongmen including Chile's Augusto Pinochet, Argentina's Jorge Videla and Peru's Alberto Fujimori all sought to flout decisions by the rights court.

"Decide if you will be on the side of history of democracy, or on the side of history together with Pinochet, Fujimori and Videla, who also tried to violate decisions," Lopez said.

The former Caracas district mayor was barred from running for office in 2005 by Venezuela's comptroller general, an ally of Chavez. Lopez was accused of receiving donations on behalf of an organization he led between 1998 and 2001 from the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, where his mother worked at the time.

The comptroller general also sanctioned Lopez in 2004 for alleged irregularities in the movement of funds from one portion of his local budget to another.

Lopez was on a list of politicians blacklisted due to corruption investigations, but he insists he is innocent and notes he never was sentenced in a court.

Lopez plans to compete against other opposition contenders in a February primary vote that will pick a unity candidate to challenge Chavez in the October 2012 election.

In recent polls, Lopez has trailed other opposition leaders such as Henrique Capriles and Pablo Perez. Those surveys were carried out before the human rights court sided with Lopez in its ruling.