Venezuela's Supreme Court chief endorsed putting off President Hugo Chavez's inauguration, siding with the government in a heated dispute with the opposition while the ailing leader struggles with complications a month after cancer surgery in Cuba.
Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales made the statement after the opposition urged the top court to rule that the government was violating the constitution by delaying the swearing-in for a new term, which had been scheduled for today.
Politicians voted on Tuesday to delay the ceremony, allowing Mr Chavez to take the oath of office at an unspecified later date before the Supreme Court.
Ms Morales also said the Supreme Court has not considered appointing a panel of doctors, as opposition politicians have demanded, to evaluate whether Mr Chavez is fit to remain in office after remaining out of public view since before his December 11 operation.
Her announcement seemed to pre-empt any opposition attempt to challenge the postponed inauguration.
She announced the decision in response to a case brought by a single lawyer, and said the inauguration can be performed before the Supreme Court, at a time and place to be determined.
"We know it's necessary, and undoubtedly the inauguration is going to be carried out, but at this time we can't anticipate when," Ms Morales told reporters at a news conference.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles condemned the Supreme Court's endorsement of delaying the inauguration.
"Institutions should not respond to the interests of a government," he said at a news conference.
The case that prompted the decision was brought not by the opposition but by a private lawyer, Marelys D'Arpino, a columnist for the pro-Chavez newspaper Vea.
Ms D'Arpino said she decided to file the case last month because "it was necessary to straighten out" the matter before the court.
The constitutional debate takes place against a backdrop of complaints that the government is not giving complete information about the condition of Mr Chavez, who has not spoken publicly since his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba four weeks ago.
"It's very evident that he isn't governing, and what they want us to believe is that he's governing, and they're lying," opposition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo told the television channel Globovision.
He insisted that the National Assembly president should take over temporarily as interim leader and that the Supreme Court should appoint a panel of doctors to determine Mr Chavez's condition.
It was unclear how the opposition would respond to Ms Morales' statement.
Venezuela's constitution says the oath of office should be taken before politicians in the National Assembly on January 10.
But the charter adds that if he is unable to be sworn in by the National Assembly, the president may take the oath before the Supreme Court, without explicitly stating a date.
Opponents maintain that even if the oath is taken before the Supreme Court, it should be on January 10.
The opposition has argued that the only legal way to postpone the ceremony is for congress to approve a "temporary absence" for the president, leaving the head of the National Assembly as interim president for 90 days, a period that could be extended for an additional 90 days.
But Ms Morales said that as of now, "there is not even a temporary absence".
Vice President Nicolas Maduro broke the news that Mr Chavez would not be able to attend the scheduled inauguration in a letter to National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, which he announced he had received on Tuesday.
Yesterday, Mr Maduro hosted a meeting with leaders from 19 Latin American and Caribbean nations. He planned to discuss issues related to Petrocaribe, a pact that has boosted Venezuela's influence in the region. The South American nation created Petrocaribe in 2005 to sell fuel to member countries at preferential terms.
Visiting leaders and foreign ministers are expected to attend an event today to show their support for Mr Chavez.
Mr Chavez said before his operation that if he were unable to continue as president, Mr Maduro should take his place and run in an election to replace him.
Speculation that his illness might be entering its final stages grew on Tuesday when the proposal for a postponement came in a letter signed by Mr Maduro, not Mr Chavez.
The government said earlier this week that Mr Chavez was in a "stable situation" receiving treatment due to a severe respiratory infection. The government has said he is coping with "respiratory deficiency", but has not said how severe it is.
The stances of the government and the Supreme Court have been criticised by legal scholars such as Vicente Gonzalez de la Vega, a law professor at Central University of Venezuela, who said the Supreme Court has effectively consummated a sort of "coup d'etat".
"How can it say that the president isn't absent and he's in his duties when he can't even sign a letter?" Mr Gonzalez said.
Francisco Madrid, a businessman and opposition supporter, called the Supreme Court's decision "shameful".
"It's proof that all branches of the state respond to the government's interests," Mr Madrid said while walking in Caracas. He also complained that while the government is focused on such issues, there are shortages of foods such as sugar, chicken and flour.