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Maduro condemned after Venezuelan opposition duo arrested in midnight raids

Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma said to have violated house arrest terms, UN human rights chief ‘deeply concerned’ two men were taken into custody


2 August 2017, 8:07am
Venezuela opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez
Venezuela opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez
The rearrest of two of Venezuela’s most prominent opposition leaders in midnight operations has prompted further condemnation of President Nicolás Maduro’s government – which was already accused of attempting to seize absolute power in the crisis-hit country.

Security officials led the raids early on Tuesday, after a court ruled that Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma had violated the terms of their house arrests by calling on Venezuelans to protest against the weekend vote to elect a new body to rewrite the constitution.

The vote for the constituent assembly was boycotted by the opposition, and has been denounced around the world as an attack on democracy.
López was sentenced to 14 years in prison for his role in leading street protests against Maduro in 2014. Ledezma is accused of plotting a coup. Human rights defenders have said in both cases the charges have been trumped up.

According to a statement from the pro-government supreme court, the two also had plans to flee.

The UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said he was “deeply concerned” that the two men had been taken into custody. “I urge the authorities not to make an already extremely volatile situation even worse through the use of excessive force, including through violent house raids by security forces that have occurred in various parts of the country.”

The US state department said the detentions were further evidence that Maduro “is not willing to respect fundamental human rights”.

José Miguel Vivanco, America’s director at Human Rights Watch, said the rearrests “expose the true nature of the dictatorship (Maduro) is imposing on Venezuelans.

“Maduro may lock up two prominent political prisoners, but he cannot silence the millions of Venezuelans who oppose his government, nor key democratic leaders abroad who know that these detentions are desperate moves to cling to power at the expense of Venezuela’s democracy and the rights of its people.”

Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, posted a video of the moment of her husband’s arrest on Twitter. “12:27 in the morning: the moment when the dictatorship kidnaps Leopoldo at my house.”

López was granted house arrest early last month after spending three years in the Ramo Verde prison. Ledezma has been under house arrest since 2015. His daughter, Vanessa, posted a video of her father, wearing pyjamas, being taken away by officials of the Sebin intelligence service.

Other opponents of the government have been targeted by security forces, and several human rights activists have gone into hiding since Friday following repeated raids on their homes, one source told the Guardian. Several are considering leaving the country, said the source, who requested anonymity.

Since 1 April, when widespread protests began against the government, more than 121 people have been killed. According to the prosecutor’s office, 16 died on Sunday, when the vote was held for the new constituent assembly, which would have the power to dissolve the legislature and other state institutions as well as rewrite the constitution.

More than 5,000 people have been detained by security forces in the past four months, and 1,389 remain in custody, according to Foro Penal, a human rights group. By the organization’s count, there are 498 political prisoners in the country.

The opposition-controlled parliament convened on Tuesday for the first time since Sunday’s vote, and three members of the minority pro-government bloc broke with their coalition to form a new faction opposed to the rewriting of the constitution.

They were the latest high-profile defections by people once loyal to the government after the nation’s top prosecutor, Luisa Ortega – a veteran Chavista who originally jailed Leopoldo López in 2014 – declared the new assembly to be in violation of the 1999 constitution. On Monday, Ortega said that Venezuela was now run by a state with “dictatorial ambitions”.

Speaking ahead of the session, the head of the parliament, Julio Borges, said: “Our message is that the constituent assembly should be cancelled.”

However, state media have said the assembly will meet on Thursday in a chamber of the capitol – a legislative building adjacent to the parliament. It remains unclear who will participate, as the national electoral council has not yet released the names of the body’s newly elected members.

Maduro called the controversial constituent assembly earlier this year, arguing that the move would create peace and foster dialogue in a deeply polarized country that is suffering a severe economic crisis. The opposition blames government mismanagement, while the government lays the blame on what it calls an “economic war” against Venezuela.

On Monday, the US imposed individual economic sanctions on Maduro, calling him a “dictator who disregards the will of the Venezuelan people”.

It had previously frozen the assets of 13 senior government officials and managers at the state oil company.

But the measures are largely symbolic, and the US has so far held back from imposing broader sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry – which could have a devastating impact on the country’s economy.

Maduro brushed off the move, saying: “The threats and sanctions of the empire don’t intimidate me for a moment. I don’t listen to orders from the empire, not now or ever. Bring on more sanctions, Donald Trump.”