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Manuel Rosales, Chavez Critic, Skipped Court, Seeking Asylum, Now In Peru

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LIMA, Peru — A Venezuelan opposition leader who says he is a victim of political persecution by President Hugo Chavez's government requested political asylum in Peru on Tuesday, one of his lawyers said.

Manuel Rosales, a leading Chavez opponent, has been charged with corruption in Venezuela but says his trial would not be fair.

Lawyer Javier Valle-Riestra said there is "convincing evidence" supporting his case for asylum and that Peru's foreign ministry should summon Rosales to explain his request within a week.

Peruvian Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Garcia Belaunde said earlier Tuesday that Rosales entered Peru as a tourist on April 4.

Venezuelan officials say the charges against Rosales are corruption-related and not political in nature.

Rosales, who lost a presidential race to Chavez in 2006, stepped down as mayor of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city, three weeks ago and went into hiding in response to harassment and fears he could be in danger, his party said.

Prosecutors accuse Rosales of illegal enrichment between 2000 and 2004 while he was governor of Venezuela's western Zulia state. They are seeking his arrest, but a court has yet to approve the charge against him or decide if he should be detained while awaiting trial.

Rosales denies the accusation, calling it a "political lynching" ordered by Chavez.

Valle-Riestra said he is confident "Peru will uphold its historical traditions" and grant him asylum. The lawyer, an expert on extradition and asylum cases who was briefly Cabinet chief under former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, noted that Peru's current president, Alan Garcia, benefited from political asylum himself when he took refuge in Colombia in the 1990s.

There is also another precedent: Peru granted asylum last year to another Chavez opponent, former Yaracuy state Gov. Eduardo Lapi, who was jailed on corruption charges but later escaped from prison and fled Venezuela saying he wouldn't receive a fair trial.

Valle-Riestra said a group of Rosales' allies contacted him 10 days ago about the case. Rosales' political party is in contact with several "friendly countries" about possible asylum requests on his behalf, party leader Delsa Solorzano said.

The lawyer appeared at a news conference in Lima along with Timoteo Zambrano, a leader of Rosales' party who insisted the opposition leader is innocent and that Venezuelan authorities haven't let him properly defend himself.

Venezuelan Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami emphasized that Rosales is charged with corruption-related crimes, not "crimes of a political nature."

"If he doesn't appear before the appropriate courts, he would be a fugitive of justice, and as a result the court will activate mechanisms for his international capture," El Aissami told state television in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

Solorzano noted that no court has ordered Rosales' arrest and that he was still free to travel. She said it took some persuasion by party leaders for him to agree to go.

"It was the best option due to the serious political persecution," Solorzano told The Associated Press.

Prosecutors say Rosales failed to show the legal source of about $68,000 in income several years ago while he was governor of Zulia state. Rosales says he reported the earnings in his income tax returns and that it came from his involvement in the agriculture business. He owns a cattle ranch in Zulia.

A crowd of supporters held a demonstration Monday in Maracaibo, holding up signs bearing photos of Rosales while his wife, Evelyn Trejo, called for his case to be heard by a court "that's impartial and fair."

Venezuelans do not need a visa to enter Peru, and can stay as tourists for up to six months.

U.S. Congressman Connie Mack urged Peru to grant political asylum to the opposition leader.

"Given the very real dangers facing Manuel Rosales for simply speaking freely, I urge the government of Peru to grant Rosales's request," the Florida Republican said in a statement.

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Associated Press Writer Fabiola Sanchez, in Caracas, contributed to this report.

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