Venezue­lan chief pros­e­cu­tor ousted

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY MARIANA ZUNIGA AND AN­THONY FAIOLA an­thony.faiola@wash­post.com

cara­cas — 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 Con­stituent Assem­bly (ANC) to rub­ber­stamp 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 been 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 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 the in­def­i­nite sus­pen­sion of Venezuela from the trade bloc Mer­co­sur, a de­ci­sion an­nounced in Sao Paulo’s city hall by the for­eign min­is­ters of Ar­gentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil.

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

Maduro re­sponded in an in­ter­view with Ar­gentina’s Ra­dio Re­belde that Venezuela will never be re­moved from Mer­co­sur. “Venezuela has met more Mer­co­sur stan­dards than the found­ing coun­tries,” he said.

Ortega Díaz said she was be­ing tar­geted for call­ing out the gov­ern­ment.

“The at­tack comes be­cause of the at­ti­tude I have as­sumed in de­fense of hu­man rights and democ­racy,” she said. “Be­cause the gov­ern­ment has com­mit­ted se­ri­ous vi­o­la­tions, in­clud­ing ar­bi­trary de­ten­tions, tor­ture, cruel [and] in­hu­mane treat­ment, the use of mil­i­tary jus­tice to judge civil­ians and the plant­ing of ev­i­dence.”

Ortega Díaz rep­re­sents a po­lit­i­cal camp in Venezuela of left­ist pop­ulists who have bro­ken with Maduro. She was, and still is, a Chav­ista — a backer of the late pres­i­dent, Hugo Chávez, who anointed Maduro as his suc­ces­sor be­fore his death in 2013.

For years Ortega Díaz backed Maduro, sup­port­ing le­gal ac­tion against lead­ing dis­si­dent Leopoldo López, who was jailed in 2014. She broke with the gov­ern­ment, how­ever, af­ter in­creas­ing hu­man rights and demo­cratic abuses. She has said that her daugh­ter and grand­son were kid­napped and held for three days in what she con­sid­ered to be an ef­fort by the gov­ern­ment to pres­sure her.

On Satur­day evening, López, who last Tues­day was taken from house ar­rest to a mil­i­tary prison, was trans­ferred back to his house in eastern Cara­cas.

“They just trans­ferred Leopoldo to our house. We con­tinue our fight with more con­vic­tion and firm­ness to achieve peace and free­dom in Venezuela,” tweeted his wife, Lil­ian Tin­tori, around 11 p.m.

López, for­mer mayor of a Cara­cas dis­trict, was first ar­rested dur­ing a wave of op­po­si­tion protests in 2014 and spent three years in the in­fa­mous Ramo Verde prison be­fore be­ing sent home in July, al­legedly be­cause of health is­sues. He and the mayor of Cara­cas, An­to­nio Ledezma, were taken and brought back to their homes in eastern Cara­cas in the past days.

The op­po­si­tion lead­ers who have led the most re­cent up­ris­ing — four months of street protests — once saw her as an en­emy. But they have em­braced her will­ing­ness to con­demn and in­ves­ti­gate a ma­jor surge in fa­tal­i­ties and ar­rests of dis­si­dents. On Satur­day, a group of top op­po­si­tion of­fi­cials went to the pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice in a show of sup­port.

“All of our sup­port to the Chief Pros­e­cu­tor Luisa Ortega Díaz,” tweeted Julio Borges, head of the National Assem­bly, whose mem­bers were elected in 2015 but have now been pushed aside by the Con­stituent Assem­bly. “To­gether, in the de­fense of the con­sti­tu­tion and democ­racy, we will over­come the dic­ta­tor­ship.”

Gabriela Ramírez, a for­mer national om­buds­man on hu­man rights who also re­cently broke with Maduro, said the move against the chief pros­e­cu­tor amounts to the start of a new cam­paign against op­po­nents. She said she fears that the new assem­bly will give Maduro le­gal cover to act more force­fully.

“This is the es­tab­lish­ment, through the naked force of the state, of a par­al­lel jus­tice sys­tem,” Ramírez said.

“We are just a tiny sam­ple of what comes to any­one who dares to op­pose the to­tal­i­tar­ian way of gov­ern­ing.” Luisa Ortega Díaz, ousted pros­e­cu­tor

AR­I­ANA CU­BIL­LOS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Tarek Wil­liam Saab, a loy­al­ist of Pres­i­dent Ni­colás Maduro, was named as top pros­e­cu­tor by the newly in­stalled su­per congress.

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