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Venezuela's embattled president vows to hold referendum on new constitution

RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP | An opposition activist takes part in a march against President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on May 1, 2017.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro pledged on Thursday to hold a referendum on a new constitution he is proposing in response to two months of protests by opponents who call him a dictator and want an end to socialist rule.


His comments came in response to criticism not just from opponents, but also some within government, that his plan to create a new super-body, known as a constituent assembly, to rewrite the national charter was anti-democratic.

Chief state prosecutor Luisa Ortega had said creating the assembly, without a plebiscite as happened in 1999 when Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez rewrote the constitution, threatened to"eliminate" democracy in Venezuela.

"I shall propose it explicitly: the new constitution will go to a consultative referendum so it is the people who say whether they are in agreement or not with the new, strengthened constitution," Maduro said on state TV.

There was no immediate reaction from Venezuela's opposition, which now has majority support after years in the shadow of the ruling Socialist Party whose popularity has plunged during the OPEC nation's brutal economic crisis.

Foes are likely to try and turn any referendum into a vote on Maduro himself. They have been calling for a bringing forward of the next presidential election, slated for late 2018.

The government has said elections for the new constituent assembly will be held in late July, though opposition leaders have said the process is skewed to ensure a pro-Maduro majority.

There was no word on when the plebiscite would be held.

Earlier, authorities announced that gunmen had killed a judge involved in the sentencing of Venezuela's best-known jailed political leader Leopoldo Lopez in the latest fatality of the anti-government unrest that has left at least 61 people dead.

The judge, 37-year-old Nelson Moncada, was shot and stripped of his belongings as he tried to get away from a street barricade on Wednesday night in Caracas' El Paraiso district, the scene of regular clashes, the prosecutor's office said.

This week has seen widespread violence around the Venezuelan capital, with security forces repeatedly breaking up marches by opposition supporters towards government offices downtown, and skirmishes continuing into the night.

Capriles under pressure

Protesters frequently block roads with trash and burning tires, sometimes asking passers-by for contributions toward a self-styled "Resistance" movement against Maduro.

The government said Moncada was one of the judges who ratified Lopez's 14-year jail sentence, and suggested that might have motivated his killing.

"We cannot exclude the possibility this was done by hitmen hired by right-wing terrorists to keep creating and spreading terror," Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said, referring to Venezuela's opposition.

Victims from two months of unrest have included supporters on both sides, bystanders and members of the security forces.

El Paraiso has seen nightly clashes between demonstrators, pro-government gangs and National Guard soldiers.

Maduro, 54, calls his opponents coup-mongers seeking his violent overthrow with U.S. support akin to the short-lived ouster of his predecessor Hugo Chavez in 2002.

The chief prosecutor Ortega launched a blistering attack on Maduro from the steps of the pro-government Supreme Court,criticizing its ruling this week endorsing the assembly plan.

"It seems that participative and protagonistic democracy,which cost Venezuelans so much (to get), is being eliminated,"said Ortega, who broke with Maduro a few weeks ago.

"This sentence is a backward step for human rights," she added, before reading extracts from a past Chavez speech.

In further political drama, the Supreme Court ordered opposition leader Henrique Capriles on Thursday to avoid roadblocks in the Miranda state that he governs, or face jail.

Miranda includes part of the capital Caracas, and the volatile towns of San Antonio de Los Altos and Los Teques, where anti-government street barricades have been common.

The 44-year-old lawyer narrowly lost a 2013 vote to Maduro after Chavez's death from cancer, and has been at the forefront of this year's protests, calling for civil disobedience.

Authorities have already barred Capriles from running for new political posts for 15 years, on allegations of "administrative irregularities" that he denies, potentially
hobbling another bid to run in 2018 when the next presidential vote is due.


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