As­sem­bly votes to oust pros­e­cu­tor

Ac­tion by loy­al­ists in pres­i­dent’s su­per congress swiftly widens crack­down on po­lit­i­cal dis­sent

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Mar­i­ana Zu­niga and An­thony Faiola

CARACAS, VENEZUELA » Loy­al­ists of Pres­i­dent Ni­colás Maduro in Venezuela’s newly cre­ated su­per congress moved to con­sol­i­date gov­ern­ment power Satur­day, strip­ping the in­de­pen­dent chief pros­e­cu­tor of her job and cor­don­ing off her head­quar­ters in a move sig­nal­ing a swiftly widen­ing crack­down on po­lit­i­cal dis­sent.

The new body, elected last Sun­day in a vote de­cried in­ter­na­tion­ally as a power grab, was in­stalled Fri­day, with its lead­ers vow­ing to back Maduro’s calls to move against po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents. Those threats trans­lated into fast ac­tion, with hun­dreds of troops sur­round­ing chief pros­e­cu­tor Luisa Ortega Díaz’s of­fice at dawn. Ortega Díaz was the most prom­i­nent se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial in Venezuela who is a vo­cal critic of the Maduro gov­ern­ment.

The move ap­peared to sig­nal a dan­ger­ous new phase in Venezuela’s break with democ­racy, re­in­forc­ing fears about Maduro us­ing the new Na­tional Con­stit­been uent As­sem­bly, or ANC, to rub­ber-stamp a fresh cam­paign against op­po­nents. In ad­di­tion to fir­ing Ortega Díaz, the as­sem­bly or­dered her not to leave the coun­try and re­placed her with a Maduro loy­al­ist.

“Ortega Díaz didn’t give the im­pres­sion of be­ing ob­jec­tive in her du­ties,” the as­sem­bly’s sec­ond vice pres­i­dent, Isaías Ro­dríguez, said. “This de­ci­sion is not news. Ev­ery­one knew it was com­ing long be­fore the ANC was in­stalled.”

In a com­mu­nique is­sued by the Pub­lic Min­istry, Ortega Díaz de­nounced the de­ci­sion to re­move her from the po­si­tion of at­tor­ney gen­eral of the repub­lic as a vi­o­la­tion of the con­sti­tu­tion.

“We are just a tiny sam­ple of what comes to any­one who dares to op­pose the to­tal­i­tar­ian way of gov­ern­ing,” she said. “I will con­tinue fight­ing for Venezue­lans, for their lib­er­ties and rights, un­til my last breath.”

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

Ortega Díaz 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 Con­stituent 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.”

On Fri­day, Ortega Díaz had chal­lenged the le­gal­ity of the Con­stituent As­sem­bly, a body of 545 Maduro loy­al­ists elected in a vote that the firm that sup­plies bal­lot­ing tech­nol­ogy to Venezuela called grossly ma­nip­u­lated. Op­po­nents, who boy­cotted the elec­tion, describe the new body’s cre­ation as a move to so­lid­ify Maduro’s au­to­cratic rule and cre­ate a Cuban-style dic­ta­tor­ship. Maduro has said it would give more rep­re­sen­ta­tion to av­er­age cit­i­zens. Its mem­bers range from slum dwellers and fish­er­man to top gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.

The as­sem­bly re­placed Ortega Díaz with Maduro’s om­buds­man, Tarek Wil­liam Saab. The procla­ma­tion brought rous­ing ap­plause and shouts of sup­port from the cham­ber.

Be­fore the vote to re­move Ortega Díaz, the as­sem­bly heard a state­ment from the pres­i­dent of the pro-gov­ern­ment supreme court. It in­formed the body of the court’s de­ci­sion to sus­pend Ortega Díaz pend­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. But the new as­sem­bly went fur­ther, strip­ing her of her job and bar­ring her from leav­ing the coun­try.

Dios­dado Ca­bello, a lead­ing mem­ber of the new as­sem­bly and a pow­er­ful fig­ure in Maduro’s in­ner cir­cle, made the mo­tion to re­move her in­stead of sus­pend­ing her. The vote in­cluded a pledge to “ur­gently re­struc­ture” the in­de­pen­dent of­fice.

The as­sem­bly’s ac­tion brought an in­def­i­nite sus­pen­sion of Venezuela from the South Amer­i­can trade bloc Mer­co­sur. The de­ci­sion was an­nounced in Sao Paulo’s city hall by the for­eign min­is­ters of Ar­gentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil.

Afp/getty Im­ages

Venezuela’s chief pros­e­cu­tor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, one of Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro’s most vo­cal crit­ics, speaks to the me­dia dur­ing a visit Satur­day to the pub­lic pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice in Caracas as na­tional guard units stand nearby.

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