Court rules Chavez swearing-in delay is legal

Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles has accepted a Supreme Court ruling that allows ailing President Hugo Chavez to postpone his inauguration while allowing his government to continue in office.

Capriles said on Wednesday that the ruling handed down by the top court "is binding," but did not end the uncertainties facing the country and challenged Vice President Nicolas Maduro to solve its most pressing problems.

"Institutions should not respond to the interests of a government," he said at a news conference.

"Now the ruling has been handed down. There is an interpretation by the Supreme Court," Capriles said.

"The excuses are over, Mr Maduro. Now it falls to you to assume the responsibility of the office and to govern."

Earlier on Wednesday, Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled that the postponement of Chavez's swearing-in for the new term was legal.

Luisa Morales, the court's president, gave the judgment at a news conference, saying no new swearing-in was necessary and Chavez remained Venezuela's president, with Nicolas Maduro also continuing in his role as vice-president.

Leaders of the government insisted that, under the circumstances, the president's current term can be extended beyond the January 10 inauguration date until he is well enough to be sworn in to another six-year term.

With a show of hands, the Chavez-controlled assembly approved his open-ended absence.

"President Chavez, this honourable assembly grants you all the time that you need to attend to your illness and return to Venezuela when the unexpected cause [of your absence] has disappeared," Cabello said.

Chavez has dominated Venezuela personally and politically since coming to power in 1999.

Condition unchanged

Ernesto Villegas, information minister, said late on Monday that Chavez's medical condition was unchanged since the latest complication from surgery was reported four days ago.

Chavez, who has not been seen in public for nearly a month, the longest stretch of his 14 years in power, is suffering from a severe pulmonary infection that has resulted in a "respiratory insufficiency", officials have said.

The announcement confirming that Chavez, 58, is too sick to be sworn in on the January 10 inauguration day came in a letter to the National Assembly from Nicolas Maduro, the vice-president.

"According to the recommendation of the medical team ... the process of post-operative recovery must extend beyond January 10 of the current year, reason for which he he will not be able to appear on that date before the National Assembly," said the letter.

The letter went on to say that, in keeping with article 231 of the constitution, Chavez would take the oath before the supreme court at a later day.

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