2 key Maduro crit­ics are ar­rested

Venezue­lan leader’s move fol­lows elec­tion widely seen as a step to­ward dic­ta­tor­ship.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Mery Mo­gol­lon and Chris Kraul Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dents Mo­gol­lon and Kraul re­ported from Cara­cas and Bo­gota, Colom­bia, re­spec­tively.

CARA­CAS, Venezuela — Venezue­lan au­thor­i­ties ar­rested two key op­po­si­tion lead­ers at their Cara­cas homes early Tues­day, mak­ing good on a threat by Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro to crack down on his crit­ics fol­low­ing an elec­tion last week­end that has been widely con­demned as a pre­lude to dic­ta­tor­ship.

Leopoldo Lopez, the leader of the Pop­u­lar Will op­po­si­tion party, was taken to the Ramo Verde mil­i­tary prison, his lawyer said in a ra­dio in­ter­view.

“Maduro is re­spon­si­ble if any­thing hap­pens,” Lopez’s wife, Lil­ian Tin­tori, said over so­cial me­dia.

An­to­nio Ledezma, the for­mer mayor of metropoli­tan Cara­cas, was also taken into cus­tody. He had ap­peared in a video Mon­day crit­i­ciz­ing the elec­tion: “It’s im­por­tant that we say that Venezuela will not give up.”

The vote Sun­day — to elect a Maduro-friendly as­sem­bly charged with draft­ing a new con­sti­tu­tion — was op­posed by a ma­jor­ity of Venezue­lans and de­nounced by the U.S. and other na­tions as the most sig­nif­i­cant step yet to­ward the end of Venezue­lan democ­racy.

Much of Cara­cas on Tues­day had the tense air of in­cip­i­ent civil war. Pro­test­ers dressed in hel­mets, gas masks and car­ry­ing full body shields have sealed off many neigh­bor­hood streets with bar­ri­cades made of trash, bricks and aban­doned ve­hi­cles. The on­go­ing bat­tles with po­lice and na­tional guard mem­bers have forced mo­torists to cre­ate new traf­fic pat­terns to avoid ar­eas of vi­o­lent clashes.

Lines at su­per­mar­kets were longer than usual as shop­pers stocked up on ra­tioned food items and house­hold goods to hedge against so­cial and com­mer­cial paral­y­sis that es­ca­lated con­flict could bring.

All the can­di­dates for the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly were Maduro loy­al­ists. The win­ners could con­vene as early as Wed­nes­day night to start draft­ing a new char­ter, a process that could take six months.

Any new con­sti­tu­tion is ex­pected to in­crease the power of the pres­i­dent and di­min­ish that of the Na­tional As­sem­bly — where the op­po­si­tion cur­rently has a ma­jor­ity — and pos­si­bly re­place it with the del­e­gates of the new body.

It is also likely to change the rules for choos­ing the at­tor­ney gen­eral, tak­ing that power away from the leg­is­la­ture and hand­ing it to the pres­i­dent. The cur­rent at­tor­ney gen­eral, Luisa Ortega Diaz, has been the only high­rank­ing pub­lic of­fi­cial to crit­i­cize Maduro, lam­bast­ing him for pack­ing the Supreme Court with 13 loy­al­ist judges and for form­ing the new con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly.

The new con­sti­tu­tion could also limit in­di­vid­ual civil rights pro­tec­tions as Maduro has warned it will al­low him to go af­ter dis­senters and do away with im­mu­nity from pros­e­cu­tion cur­rently af­forded to mem­bers of Congress.

In a speech late Sun­day cel­e­brat­ing the elec­tion, Maduro warned he would take harsh mea­sures against op­po­si­tion lead­ers and some news me­dia, in­clud­ing jail terms.

The ar­rests of Lopez, 46, and Ledezma, 62, were quickly con­demned by for­eign lead­ers and hu­man rights ad­vo­cates, in­clud­ing Chilean Pres­i­dent Michelle Bachelet and the At­lantabased Carter Cen­ter, which is­sued a state­ment that called the ar­rests “de­plorable” and said they lay “grounds for se­ri­ous vi­o­la­tions of hu­man rights.”

In 2015, Lopez, a for­mer Cara­cas bor­ough mayor, was sen­tenced to 13 years in prison on an in­cite­ment-to-vi­o­lence charge re­lated to protests the pre­vi­ous year that left 43 dead. He de­nied the charges, say­ing his ar­rest was po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated.

His im­pris­on­ment be­came an in­ter­na­tional cause cele­bre, with many hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tions de­mand­ing his re­lease. Lopez was granted house ar­rest July 8 af­ter spend­ing more than three years in jail. His re­lease had been ne­go­ti­ated by for­mer Span­ish Prime Min­is­ter Jose Luis Ro­driguez Za­p­a­tero.

The re­lease was seen as a ges­ture by the gov­ern­ment to ease ten­sions amid wide­spread protests that since late March have left 120 dead and thou­sands in­jured. Po­lice and the na­tional guard have ar­rested more than 5,000 in clashes that have en­gulfed much of the na­tion.

Ledezma was charged in Fe­bru­ary 2015 with plot­ting to over­throw Maduro’s gov­ern­ment, which he de­nied. Ledezma had been al­lowed to serve his term at home since April 2015 for health rea­sons.

The Supreme Court is­sued a state­ment Tues­day say­ing both were re­taken into cus­tody by of­fi­cers of the Bo­li­var­ian Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice, or SE­BIN, for “non­com­pli­ance” with the terms of their house ar­rests. Ledezma’s fam­ily re­leased video show­ing Ledezma still dressed in pa­ja­mas be­ing hus­tled out of his apart­ment and into his build­ing’s el­e­va­tor.

“SE­BIN took my fa­ther An­to­nio Ledezma pris­oner for speak­ing the truth to the gov­ern­ment,” the for­mer mayor’s son Vic­tor said in a so­cial me­dia mes­sage.

At­tor­neys for both politi­cians said the ar­rests Tues­day were un­called for as nei­ther man was a flight risk. Lopez’s at­tor­ney, Juan Car­los Gu­tier­rez, noted that six SE­BIN of­fi­cers have stood guard out­side Lopez’s res­i­dence since he was granted house ar­rest last month.

On Mon­day, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion sanc­tioned Maduro, freez­ing his as­sets in the U.S. And at a White House news con­fer­ence, na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor H.R. McMaster said Maduro is “now a dic­ta­tor.”

Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence called for “the full and un­con­di­tional re­lease of all po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Venezuela, free and fair elec­tions, restora­tion of the Na­tional As­sem­bly, and re­spect for hu­man rights in Venezuela.”

The U.S. State De­part­ment on Tues­day con­demned the ar­rest of the two op­po­si­tion lead­ers. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son said the de­vel­op­ment was “alarm­ing ” and he seemed to sug­gest the ad­min­is­tra­tion would like to see Maduro re­moved from power.

“This could lead to an out­break of fur­ther vi­o­lence in the coun­try; the sit­u­a­tion from a hu­man­i­tar­ian stand­point is al­ready be­com­ing dire,” Tiller­son said. “We are eval­u­at­ing all of our pol­icy op­tions as to what can we do to cre­ate a change of con­di­tions where ei­ther Maduro de­cides he doesn’t have a fu­ture, and wants to leave of his own ac­cord, or we can re­turn the gov­ern­ment pro­cesses back to their con­sti­tu­tion.”

Un­til now, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has lim­ited its ac­tions against the Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment to eco­nomic sanc­tions im­posed on Maduro and mem­bers of his gov­ern­ment, and has called for Venezuela to re­turn to democ­racy. Maduro has long ac­cused the United States of at­tempt­ing to over­throw his gov­ern­ment but with­out pro­vid­ing proof.

Venezue­lans have been protest­ing across the coun­try since late March when the Maduro-con­trolled Supreme Court is­sued a rul­ing re­mov­ing leg­isla­tive pow­ers from the Na­tional As­sem­bly and trans­fer­ring them to Maduro. Although the rul­ing was par­tially re­scinded, vi­o­lent clashes have con­tin­ued.

Leopoldo Lopez

THE LEADER of Venezuela’s Pop­u­lar Will op­po­si­tion party, Leopoldo Lopez, pic­tured on July 25, was taken to the Ramo Verde mil­i­tary prison, his lawyer said in a ra­dio in­ter­view. Lopez had been un­der house ar­rest.

Fer­nando Al­varado Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

MITZY CAPRILES, left, wife of for­mer Cara­cas Mayor An­to­nio Ledezma, their daugh­ter, An­toni­eta, and Rosaura Valenti, wife of op­po­si­tion leader Yon Goicoechea, at­tend a news con­fer­ence in Madrid.

Evaristo Sa AFP/Getty Im­ages

LEDEZMA, seen in 2009, was in a video Mon­day crit­i­ciz­ing the elec­tion of a Maduro-friendly as­sem­bly.

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