CARACAS (Reuters) - Former Venezuelan presidential candidate Manuel Rosales was arrested on Thursday upon his return to Venezuela from exile in Peru, six years after the government of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez accused him of illicit enrichment.
Rosales, who served two terms as governor of the most populous state of Zulia, joins a list of opposition figures including protest leader Leopoldo Lopez who have been jailed by the government of President Nicolas Maduro.
Intelligence agents took Rosales into custody after he landed in Zulia’s capital Maracaibo, where hundreds of supporters had gathered at a rally to support him.
The state prosecutors’ office said in a statement that it would take him to Caracas and resume judicial proceedings against him that were interrupted when he left the country.
“I feel a knot in my throat and my heart is jumping. I‘m on my way to my beautiful homeland,” wrote Rosales, 62, via Twitter before boarding a commercial flight from nearby Aruba.
Rosales’ arrival and detention may help mobilize the opposition in the run-up to the Dec. 6 parliamentary elections, which polls show will be among the toughest ever for the ruling Socialist Party and a test for President Nicolas Maduro.
Rosales received little attention after being defeated by Chavez in 2006 and has been off the political radar since leaving the country.
He was charged in 2008 with improperly reporting his income while he was Zulia governor and of registering income the origin of which he could not explain to the comptroller general, according to state prosecutors.
He fled to Peru in 2009 before the first hearing of his trial. He is barred from holding office until 2022 through a separate decision by the comptroller general.
His lawyer, Jesus Ollarves, said Rosales had expected to be arrested but returned anyway at the request of his family and political party, and because he came to believe that “exile is the worst prison.”
His supporters have said the accusations against him are part of a political witch hunt. Chavez had called him a “thief” and said “Manuel Rosales, I will sweep you from the political map of Venezuela.”
Critics have said that Maduro, Chavez’s successor, is increasingly criminalizing dissent and using the justice system to intimidate dissidents. Maduro has said that jailed opposition leaders sought to destabilize the country through often violent street protests in 2014 that left more than 40 people dead.
Reporting by Diego Oré; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Toni Reinhold