September 2, 2010 / 1:57 AM / 9 years ago

Venezuela says opposition sought protester's death

* Hunger-striker’s death in land protest stirs politics

* Chavez government says foes manipulated the farmer

* Supporters cry ‘Justice’ next to Brito’s coffin

By Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS, Sept 1 (Reuters) - Venezuela’s government accused opposition parties on Wednesday of desiring the death of hunger-striker Franklin Brito to maximize political damage to President Hugo Chavez ahead of a parliamentary election.

“Like vultures, they desired and hoped for his death,” a government statement said of the Brito case, which has stirred up Venezuelan politics before the Sept. 26 vote.

Critics have seized on the emaciated farmer’s death, in a protest over land he says was seized illegally in south Venezuela, as evidence of Chavez’s abuse of property rights and cold indifference to opposition.

But the government says Brito’s complaint had no basis in law and that his ownership of 717 acres (290 hectares) in Bolivar state had been repeatedly ratified by land authorities.

“We are obliged to reject the Phariseeism of the rotten media, the electoral opposition and the Catholic Church who encouraged Mr. Brito’s extremism with the sole aim of having a death for their dirty banners,” the statement added.

Brito, 49, died on Monday in a Caracas military hospital after authorities took him away in December last year from a square where he had been protesting near an office of the Organization of American States.

After a wake, relatives carried his coffin through a Caracas street on Wednesday, with some in the crowd shouting “Justice” and demanding the resignation of senior officials.

Relatives say Brito was denied the doctor of his choice at the end. But the government said the Venezuelan Red Cross took charge of his treatment and all possible was done to save him.

The government statement lashed Venezuela’s opposition leaders for crying “hypocritically” over Brito’s death and lacking the “courage” to make their own sacrifice.

“Instead, they take advantage of a man and his family’s tragedy to try to win votes and destabilize a legitimate and democratic government.” it said.

Though seldom garnering international attention until now, Brito’s case has been a long-running and complicated saga since his first charge that his land was seized by neighbors in 2003.

At one point, he sewed his mouth shut and even chopped off a finger in front of television cameras.

Chavez foes have compared Brito’s case to that of Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata, who died in February after an 85-day hunger strike demanding better prison conditions.

Leading Chavez critic Teodoro Petkoff said the Venezuelan leader bore responsibility for Brito’s death because he had appealed directly to Chavez when other officials ignored him.

“But the president did not have time to bother with what must have seemed an insignificant matter, a bother which he couldn’t waste precious time on. So he let him die,” the newspaper editor wrote in his paper Tal Cual.

Venezuela’s politicians are in full campaign swing ahead of the National Assembly vote where opponents hope to slash Chavez’s majority. [ID:nVENEZUELA] (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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