Top pros­e­cu­tor out in Venezuela

She vows to fight back af­ter ‘coup’

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE -

CARA­CAS, Venezuela — A newly in­stalled con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly ousted Venezuela’s de­fi­ant chief pros­e­cu­tor Sat­ur­day, a sign that Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro’s gov­ern­ment in­tends to move swiftly against crit­ics and con­sol­i­date power in a fast-mov­ing po­lit­i­cal cri­sis.

Cries of “traitor” and “jus­tice” arose from the stately, neo­clas­si­cal sa­lon where 545 pro-gov­ern­ment del­e­gates voted unan­i­mously to re­move Luisa Ortega from her post as the na­tion’s top law en­force­ment of­fi­cial and re­place her with a staunch gov­ern­ment sup­porter.

They said they were act­ing in re­sponse to a rul­ing by the gov­ern­ment-stacked Supreme Court, which banned Ortega from leav­ing the coun­try and freez­ing her bank ac­counts while it weighs crim­i­nal

charges against her on al­le­ga­tions of ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties.

Ortega fled her of­fice strad­dling a mo­tor­cy­cle — squeezed be­tween two body­guards — af­ter con­fronting se­cu­rity of­fi­cers in riot gear. She was de­nied en­try to the Pub­lic Min­istry, which was taken over by the Na­tional Guard.

“Lib­erty has been lost in this coun­try,” a shaken Ortega said.

Ortega, a long­time loy­al­ist who broke with the so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment in April, re­fused to rec­og­nize the de­ci­sion and vowed to con­tinue de­fend­ing the rights of Venezue­lans from Maduro’s “coup” against the con­sti­tu­tion “with my last breath.”

“This is just a tiny ex­am­ple of what’s com­ing for every­one that dares to op­pose this to­tal­i­tar­ian form of gov­ern­ment,” Ortega said in the state­ment she signed as chief pros­e­cu­tor. “If they’re do­ing this to the chief pros­e­cu­tor, imag­ine the help­less state all Venezue­lans live in.”

Ortega has strongly crit­i­cized the gov­ern­ment’s ac­tions against pro-democ­racy demon­stra­tors. More than 100 have died and thou­sands have been de­tained in four months of street protests.

Ortega said that she was not in­side her head­quar­ters in cen­tral Cara­cas when troops sur­rounded the build­ing but that mem­bers of her staff were trapped in­side.

“My of­fice has been taken by pub­lic se­cu­rity forces, in­clud­ing na­tional guards and po­lice­men, be­tween 400 and 500” troops, she said. “We still don’t know how many of our em­ploy­ees are in­side. They’re not per­mit­ting us to go in, or any­one to go out.”

In an in­ter­view with The Wash­ing­ton Post, she de­nounced the cre­ation of the new con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly — mem­bers of which in­clude Maduro’s wife and son — as “the birth of a dic­ta­tor­ship.”

Speak­ing be­fore the as­sem­bly’s ac­tion, she said: “If they re­move me, I’ll keep fight­ing for hu­man rights and for democ­racy. I can’t per­mit my coun­try to be­come a dic­ta­tor­ship.”

She al­leged that au­thor­i­ties were des­per­ate to get their hands on dossiers con­tain­ing in­for­ma­tion on dirty deal­ings by high-level of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing sen­si­tive de­tails about mil­lions of dol­lars in bribes paid by Brazil­ian con­struc­tion gi­ant Ode­brecht.

“All of our sup­port to the Chief Pros­e­cu­tor Luisa Ortega Diaz,” tweeted Julio Borges, head of the Na­tional As­sem­bly, whose mem­bers were elected in 2015. “To­gether, in the de­fense of the con­sti­tu­tion and democ­racy, we will over­come the dic­ta­tor­ship.”

As­sem­bly del­e­gates later swore in as Ortega’s re­place­ment om­buds­man Tarek William Saab, who was re­cently sanc­tioned by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion for fail­ing to pro­tect pro­test­ers from abuses in his role as the na­tion’s top hu­man-rights of­fi­cial.

Mem­bers of the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly had pledged in their first meet­ing to move quickly against Maduro’s op­po­nents.

“Don’t think we’re go­ing to wait weeks, months or years,” former For­eign Min­is­ter Delcy Ro­driguez said Fri­day af­ter she was cho­sen to lead the as­sem­bly. “To­mor­row we start to act. The vi­o­lent fas­cists, those who wage eco­nomic war on the peo­ple, those who wage psy­cho­log­i­cal war, jus­tice is com­ing for you.”

The con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly was seated de­spite strong crit­i­cism from the United States, other coun­tries and the Venezue­lan op­po­si­tion, which fear it will be a tool for im­pos­ing dic­ta­tor­ship. Sup­port­ers say it will pacify a coun­try rocked by vi­o­lent protests.

Ortega, who was un­suc­cess­ful in block­ing the new as­sem­bly from its power grab, opened a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into elec­tion su­per­vi­sors Wed­nes­day af­ter Smart­matic, the com­pany that pro­vides the coun­try with its vot­ing ma­chines and soft­ware, said it couldn’t stand by re­sults the com­pany said had been in­flated by at least 1 mil­lion of a pur­ported nearly 8.1 mil­lion votes.

At least 10 peo­ple died on Elec­tion Day as the gov­ern­ment fought off protests.

The op­po­si­tion boy­cotted the July 30 elec­tion for the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly, say­ing the rules were rigged to fur­ther en­trench Maduro’s “dic­ta­tor­ship.” Maduro and the Na­tional Elec­toral Coun­cil de­nied the elec­tion had been rigged.

At least 10 peo­ple died on Elec­tion Day as the gov­ern­ment fought off protests.

The as­sem­bly’s in­stal­la­tion is likely to in­ten­sify a po­lit­i­cal cri­sis that has gen­er­ated four months of protests in which at least 120 peo­ple have died and hun­dreds more have been jailed.

Maduro also wants the as­sem­bly to strip op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers of their con­sti­tu­tional im­mu­nity from pros­e­cu­tion, say­ing their con­stant con­spir­ing to oust him shouldn’t be pro­tected.

While mem­bers of congress say they will be re­moved only by force, the op­po­si­tion is strug­gling to re­gain its foot­ing in the face of the gov­ern­ment’s strong-arm tac­tics and the re-emer­gence of old, in­ter­nal di­vi­sions. Sev­eral op­po­si­tion ac­tivists have been jailed in re­cent days, others are ru­mored to be seek­ing ex­ile and one leader has bro­ken ranks from the op­po­si­tion al­liance to say his party will field can­di­dates in re­gional elec­tions de­spite wide­spread dis­trust of the elec­toral sys­tem.

Venezuela was ex­pected to hold re­gional vot­ing to elect gov­er­nors and may­ors in De­cem­ber, while pres­i­den­tial elec­tions would, in the­ory, be held in late 2018. It isn’t clear if that cal­en­dar will pro­ceed un­der the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly.

Only a few hun­dred demon­stra­tors showed up for a Fri­day protest against the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly, one of the small­est turnouts in months. Those who did turn out said fear of ar­rest — rights groups claim there are more than 600 “po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers” jailed dur­ing the protests — may be keep­ing peo­ple at home but urged Venezue­lans to re­main mo­bi­lized.

“We shouldn’t think the gov­ern­ment is win­ning,” said Julio Borges, pres­i­dent of the op­po­si­tion-con­trolled congress, mak­ing a plea for Maduro’s op­po­nents to re­main on the streets and cap­i­tal­ize on the gov­ern­ment’s in­creas­ing in­ter­na­tional iso­la­tion. “The only thing it’s do­ing is de­stroy­ing it­self and com­mit­ting sui­cide.”

More and more for­eign gov­ern­ments have re­fused to rec­og­nize the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly, fur­ther iso­lat­ing Maduro’s gov­ern­ment on the in­ter­na­tional stage.

On Sat­ur­day, the South Amer­i­can trade bloc Mer­co­sur moved to sus­pend Venezuela for fail­ing to fol­low demo­cratic norms.

“To­day’s unan­i­mous de­ci­sion for the sus­pen­sion of Venezuela is a se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal sanc­tion,” Aloy­sio Nunes Fer­reira, Brazil’s for­eign min­is­ter, said on his ver­i­fied Twit­ter ac­count. “A coun­try that com­mits such bar­bar­i­ties against fun­da­men­tal free­doms can­not be part of our as­so­ci­a­tion.”

Nunes said that to avoid wors­en­ing the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in Venezuela, the sus­pen­sion will not af­fect trade or mi­gra­tion poli­cies.

Venezuela was pre­vi­ously sus­pended in De­cem­ber for fail­ing to up­hold com­mit­ments it made when it joined the group in 2012. The new de­ci­sion will make it harder for the coun­try to re­turn to good stand­ing since the new sus­pen­sion can be lifted only when the bloc is sat­is­fied that Venezuela has re­stored demo­cratic or­der.

“To­day in Venezuela there is no democ­racy,” Ar­gen­tine For­eign Min­is­ter Jorge Fau­rie said. “Es­sen­tially what Mer­co­sur is say­ing is: With­out democ­racy, no, you can­not be a part of Mer­co­sur.”

Maduro re­sponded by call­ing the move part of a dirty cam­paign led by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to dis­credit Venezuela and get its hands on its vast oil re­serves.

“They come walk­ing down the mid­dle of the street bark­ing or­ders, treat­ing rulers like their maids,” Maduro, told Ar­gentina’s Ra­dio Re­belde in an in­ter­view.

The con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly is made up of del­e­gates from an ar­ray of pro-gov­ern­ment sec­tors such as trade union­ists, stu­dents and even rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Venezue­lans with phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties. But the agenda is ex­pected to be set by big­ger-name loy­al­ists, in­clud­ing Maduro’s wife, son and sev­eral Cab­i­net min­is­ters who re­signed to join the body.

It will have sweep­ing pow­ers to up­end in­sti­tu­tions and in the­ory could even re­move Maduro, a fact held up by gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers as a sign of its in­de­pen­dence.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has threat­ened fur­ther ac­tion against as­sem­bly del­e­gates. Maduro, Vice Pres­i­dent Tareck El Ais­sami, In­te­rior Min­is­ter Nestor Reverol and Saab are all un­der U.S. sanc­tions.

AP/WIL RIERA

Loyal em­ploy­ees sur­round Venezue­lan chief pros­e­cu­tor Luisa Ortega (sec­ond from left) as se­cu­rity forces block her from en­ter­ing her of­fice Sat­ur­day in Cara­cas.

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