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Venezuelan opposition cries foul as Supreme Court assumes legislative power

Juan Barreto, AFP | Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (L) delivers a speech at the Supreme Court in Caracas on January 15, 2017.

Venezuela's Supreme Court took over legislative powers Thursday, after ruling the opposition-controlled National Assembly was in contempt of court, sparking accusations that the country is increasingly becoming a dictatorship.

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The ruling marked a dramatic escalation of the political crisis gripping the oil-rich South American nation, where President Nicolas Maduro is fighting off attempts to force him from power amid an economic meltdown.

The country has seen waves of food shortages, riots and an epidemic of violent crime in recent months.

"As long as the National Assembly's contempt of court and invalidity persist, parliamentary powers shall be exercised directly by (the Supreme Court's) constitutional chamber or by the body it stipulates to safeguard the rule of law," the high court said in the ruling on Wednesday.

The Democratic Unity umbrella opposition organisation slammed the top court's decision on Thursday, with several lawmakers accusing Maduro of acting like a dictator.

"This unconstitutional sentence that we reject ... cements another step in the dismantling of Venezuela's democracy," the opposition said in a statement. "This government is dying, and that's why it's turning to these desperate measures."

The head of the Organization of American States (OAS) later denounced the move a as a "coup" to assume for itself extradordinary powers.

The Supreme Court's order on the National Assembly and another that stripped members of the assembly of parliamentary immunity are "the latest blows with which the regime subverts the constitutional order of the country and puts an end to democracy," OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro said.

Biased court?

The court ruled in August 2016 that the opposition majority in the National Assembly was in contempt for swearing in three lawmakers who were suspended over alleged electoral fraud – charges the opposition condemns as a trumped-up bid to curb its power.

The main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), won a landslide in legislative elections in December 2015 with a promise to oust Maduro.

That forced Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to share power for the first time since its founder, Hugo Chavez, surged to power in 1999.

But the Supreme Court – which opponents say is stacked with Maduro loyalists – scuttled the opposition's powerful two-thirds majority when it barred the three investigated lawmakers from taking their seats.

Since then, the court has overturned every law passed by the legislature.

'Facing diplomatic pressure'

Its latest ruling came a day after it stripped lawmakers of their legislative immunity, clearing the way for them to face prosecution.

Maduro has accused opposition lawmakers of treason for asking the OAS to consider suspending Venezuela for violating democratic norms.

The Permanent Council of the OAS met this week to discuss the political crisis in Venezuela, but did not move to immediately suspend the country’s membership.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a think-tank, said in a statement on Wednesday that the meeting was a positive step toward overcoming the political crisis.

“The government of Venezuela, rather than being pushed into counterproductive isolation by being removed from the OAS, will face diplomatic pressure to restore democratic order on new, promising fronts,” WOLA said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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