Venezuela takes two foes back to jail

Court says house ar­rest re­scinded after gov­ern­ment crit­i­cized

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - MICHAEL WEIS­SENSTEIN

CARA­CAS, Venezuela — Two of Venezuela’s lead­ing op­po­si­tion fig­ures were seized at their homes by state se­cu­rity agents early Tues­day in the first moves by Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro’s gov­ern­ment against prom­i­nent en­e­mies since a widely de­nounced vote grant­ing the rul­ing party nearly unlimited pow­ers.

The Venezue­lan Supreme Court said Leopoldo Lopez and An­to­nio Ledezma had vi­o­lated the terms of their house ar­rest by crit­i­ciz­ing the gov­ern­ment in mes­sages re­leased on so­cial me­dia in re­cent days.

The court, which is con­trolled by Maduro al­lies, also said it had re­ceived “re­ports from of­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence sources” that the two men had been plan­ning to flee.

Rel­a­tives and al­lies of Lopez and Ledezma, a for­mer Cara­cas mayor, ear­lier re­ported on so­cial me­dia that both had been de­tained. Lopez’s wife posted what ap­peared to be video of him being taken from their home after mid­night.

“They’ve just taken Leopoldo from the house,” Lil­ian Tin­tori tweeted. “We don’t know where he is or where they’re tak­ing him.”

Al­lies of Ledezma posted video of a man who ap­peared to be the op­po­si­tion leader being taken by state se­cu­rity as a woman screams for help.

“They’re tak­ing Ledezma!” she cries. “It’s a dic­ta­tor­ship!”

At­tor­ney Juan Car­los Gutierrez said the gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to re­turn Lopez to prison was “com­pletely ar­bi­trary” and that Lopez had obeyed the con­di­tions im­posed on his house ar­rest and had never planned to flee.

Lopez had been re­leased from the Ramo Verde mil­i­tary prison July 8 after serv­ing three years of a 13-year sen­tence for in­cit­ing vi­o­lence at op­po­si­tion ral­lies. Many hu­man-rights groups con­sid­ered him a po­lit­i­cal pris­oner.

Ledezma was de­tained in 2015 and has been un­der house ar­rest. Both lead­ers re­cently posted videos online de­nounc­ing Maduro’s de­ci­sion to hold a vote for a con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly with the power to over­haul Venezuela’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

The United States said it holds Maduro “per­son­ally responsible” for the health and safety of the two pris­on­ers.

They were being “un­justly” held by the Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment after its “out­ra­geous seizure of power through a sham elec­tion” over the week­end, said White House spokesman Sarah Huck­abee San­ders.

Maduro said Mon­day evening that he had no in­ten­tion of de­vi­at­ing from his plans to re­write the con­sti­tu­tion and go after his en­e­mies, in­clud­ing in­de­pen­dent Venezue­lan news chan­nels and gun­men he claimed were sent by neigh­bor­ing Colom­bia to dis­rupt the vote as part of an in­ter­na­tional con­spir­acy led by the man he calls “Em­peror Don­ald Trump.”

“They don’t in­tim­i­date me. The threats and sanc­tions of the em­pire don’t in­tim­i­date me for a mo­ment,” Maduro said on na­tional TV. “I don’t lis­ten to or­ders from the em­pire, not now or ever. … Bring on more sanc­tions, Don­ald Trump.”

Hours ear­lier, Wash­ing­ton had added Maduro to a steadily grow­ing list of high-rank­ing Venezue­lan of­fi­cials tar­geted by fi­nan­cial sanc­tions, es­ca­lat­ing a tac­tic that has so far failed to al­ter his so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment’s be­hav­ior. For now, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has not de­liv­ered on threats to sanc­tion Venezuela’s oil in­dus­try, which could un­der­mine Maduro’s gov­ern­ment but raise U.S. gas prices and deepen the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in Venezuela.

The sanc­tions came after elec­toral au­thor­i­ties said more than 8 mil­lion peo­ple voted Sun­day on del­e­gates for the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly — a turnout doubted by in­de­pen­dent an­a­lysts while the elec­tion was la­beled il­le­git­i­mate by lead­ers across the Amer­i­cas and Europe.

Venezuela’s Na­tional Elec­toral Coun­cil said turnout in Sun­day’s vote was 41.53 per­cent, or 8,089,320 peo­ple. The re­sult would mean the rul­ing party won more sup­port than it had in any na­tional elec­tion since 2013, de­spite a cra­ter­ing econ­omy, spi­ral­ing in­fla­tion, mal­nu­tri­tion and short­ages of medicine. Opinion polls had said about 85 per­cent of Venezue­lans dis­ap­proved of the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly and that sim­i­lar num­bers dis­ap­proved of Maduro’s over­all per­for­mance.

Op­po­si­tion lead­ers es­ti­mated the real turnout at less than half the gov­ern­ment’s claim, in a vote watched by gov­ern­ment-al­lied ob­servers but no in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized poll mon­i­tors.

An exit poll based on sur­veys from 110 vot­ing centers by New York in­vest­ment bank Torino Cap­i­tal and a Venezue­lan pub­lic opinion com­pany es­ti­mated 3.6 mil­lion peo­ple voted, or about 18.5 per­cent of reg­is­tered vot­ers.

The con­stituent as­sem­bly will have the task of rewrit­ing the coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tion and will have pow­ers above and be­yond other state in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing the op­po­si­tion-con­trolled Con­gress.

Maduro has said the new as­sem­bly will be­gin to gov­ern within a week. Among other mea­sures, he said he would use the as­sem­bly’s pow­ers to bar op­po­si­tion can­di­dates from run­ning in gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tions in December un­less they sit with his party to ne­go­ti­ate an end to hos­til­i­ties that have gen­er­ated four months of protests that have killed at least 120 peo­ple and wounded nearly 2,000.

Along with the U.S., the Euro­pean Union and na­tions in­clud­ing Ar­gentina, Canada, Colom­bia, Mex­ico, Panama, Paraguay, Spain and Bri­tain crit­i­cized Sun­day’s vote. Maduro said he had re­ceived con­grat­u­la­tions from the gov­ern­ments of Cuba, Bo­livia and Nicaragua, among oth­ers.

Maduro called the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly in May after a month of protests against his gov­ern­ment, which has over­seen Venezuela’s de­scent into a dev­as­tat­ing cri­sis dur­ing its four years in power.

Be­cause of plung­ing oil prices and wide­spread cor­rup­tion and mis­man­age­ment, Venezuela’s in­fla­tion and homi­cide rates are among the world’s high­est, and wide­spread short­ages of food and medicine have cit­i­zens dy­ing of pre­ventable ill­nesses and root­ing through trash for food.


Venezue­lan op­po­si­tion leader Leopoldo Lopez holds a na­tional flag as he greets sup­port­ers last month out­side his home in Cara­cas, Venezuela, after he was re­leased from prison and placed un­der house ar­rest. On Tues­day, state se­cu­rity agents took Lopez from his home.


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