Assembly votes to oust prosecutor
Action by loyalists in president’s super congress swiftly widens crackdown on political dissent
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.
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.