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Venezuela's assembly crisis rages on as opposition leader released

HO / Venezuelan Presidency / AFP | Handout picture released by the Venezuelan presidency showing President Nicolas Maduro (L) talking during a meeting with constitutionalists in Caracas on August 2, 2017.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was set to install a powerful new assembly packed with his allies Friday, dismissing an international outcry and opposition protests saying he is burying democracy in his crisis-hit country.


The Constituent Assembly, elected last weekend in a vote marred by violence and allegations of fraud, will sit in a chamber in the Legislative Palace in Caracas, where the opposition-controlled legislature is located.

The inaugural session of its 500-plus members -- including Maduro's wife and son -- was to take place under high security.

The opposition has called a mass march in the capital against the body, raising fears of violence that could add to a death toll of more than 125 over the past four months.

Maduro, who warned against "provocations," led a march of supporters along a central avenue to the Legislative Palace. Marchers carried several big portraits of Hugo Chavez, Maduro's late mentor and predecessor, which were to be hung in the building.

The United States, the European Union and major Latin American nations have said they will not recognize the assembly.

The Vatican on Friday urged that the new assembly be suspended, saying it was one of several initiatives that "foment a climate of tension." It also appealed for Venezuelan security forces to show restraint.

Meanwhile, Venezuela's intelligence service unexpectedly transferred a high-profile opposition figure, Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, from jail back to house arrest, his family said.

Ledezma and another opposition figure, Leopoldo Lopez, had been taken from their homes to military prison on Tuesday, reversing earlier home detentions.

Lopez remains incarcerated, one of hundreds of people who the opposition says are political prisoners.

Unlimited powers

The Constituent Assembly marks a new stage in Venezuela’s rule.

With unlimited powers to dissolve the National Assembly or amend laws, the new body is tasked with rewriting the 1999 constitution brought in under Chavez.

Maduro claims the revised charter will yank Venezuela out of its political and economic crisis, though he has not detailed how. Nor has he given an end date for the Constituent Assembly, which he said would operate for years.

The body is being challenged on several fronts.

Backing opposition allegations of fraud, Smartmatic, a British-based company involved in the vote technology behind the election last Sunday, said the official turnout figure had been tampered with and exaggerated by at least a million voters.

Although brushed off by Maduro as part of a plot by "the international enemy," Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega -- a thorn in the president's side -- ordered an investigation.

She said prosecutors had lodged court cases seeking to have the Constituent Assembly annulled, though few in Venezuela believed that would happen.

The country's supreme court has systematically blocked prosecutorial or legislative gambits against the government.


Using his daily appearances on state television, Maduro has lashed out at several of the 40 countries that admonished him for seeing through the creation of the new assembly.

After being hit directly with US sanctions and called a dictator by US President Donald Trump, Maduro said defiantly that he was standing up to "imperialism."

The Venezuelan leader slammed Mexico, Chile and Peru as American vassals.

But Maduro is fighting against a broad international tide, even if he has support of Russia -- which holds billions in Venezuelan debt -- as well as the leftist governments of Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

On Friday, Panama said it was giving asylum to two opposition-appointed judges sheltering in its Caracas diplomatic mission who are among 33 the legislature named last month to a parallel supreme court.

Five other shadow judges and another Venezuelan opposition figure are being given diplomatic protection, though not asylum, in Chile's embassy.

Diving currency

The uncertainty and unease surrounding the path upon which Maduro has set Venezuela has been reflected in an accelerated collapse of the country's already debilitated currency.

The bolivar lost 20 percent of its value against the dollar on Thursday, placing scarce imported food and medicine even further out of reach for many impoverished Venezuelans. On Friday, it lost another 12 percent.

One analyst, Luis Salamanca, said the new assembly "is being born badly, but Maduro doesn't care. He just wants a Constituent Assembly that suits him."

According to Datanalisis, a polling firm, 72 percent of Venezuelans reject the assembly. And 80 percent reject Maduro's leadership.

But the president enjoys the backing of the military, as well as judicial and electoral authorities, allowing him to forge on.

"More than changing the constitution, the main goal is to govern without limits," said another analyst, Benigno Alarcon.

‘Deprived of their liberty’

On Friday, meanwhile, a group of United Nations experts said Venezuela must stop using military tribunals to prosecute civilians, demanding that the country’s embattled government respect the right to demonstrate.

"The government of Venezuela must stop systematically detaining protesters and end the growing use of military tribunals to try civilians," the group of five experts said in a statement. The group includes Jose Antonio Guevara Bermudez, a specialist on arbitrary detentions, David Kaye, special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Annalisa Ciampi, the UN's expert on peaceful assembly, Diego Garcia-Sayan, special rapporteur on judicial independence, and Nils Melzer, the UN expert on torture.

According the group, Venezuela has tried 400 protesters through the military justice system.

In most cases, the accused "were deprived of their liberty after being found guilty of crimes in the military justice code, such as rebellion, treason and assault," said the expert group’s statement.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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