Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, a leading critic of president, is removed from office – Washington Post
By Mariana Zuniga and Anthony Faiola,
CARACAS — Loyalists of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela’s newly created super congress moved to consolidate government power on 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 on 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 Diaz’s office at dawn. Ortega Diaz was the most prominent senior administration official in Venezuela who was also a vocal government critic.
It appeared to signal a dangerous new phase in Venezuela’s break with democracy, suggesting fearsthat Maduro would use the new congress, known as the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), to rubber stamp a fresh campaign against opponents were coming true. The new body fired Ortega Diaz, ordered her not to leave the country, and replaced her with a Maduro loyalist.
“Ortega Diaz didn’t give the impression of being objective in her duties. This decision is not news, everyone knew it was coming long before the ANC was installed, “Isaias Rodriguez, second vice president of the ANC, said in a press statement.
Ortega Diaz in March broke with Maduro, and has strongly denounced the government’s fierce repression against pro-democracy protestors. More than 100 have died and thousands have been detained in four months of street protests.
Ortega Diaz said she was not inside her headquarters in central Caracas when troops surrounded the building, but members of her staff were trapped inside.
In an interview with the Washington Post, she denounced the creation of the new Constituent Assembly – whose members include Maduro’s wife and son– as “the birth of a dictatorship.”
“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.”
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 Diaz had challenged the legality of the Constituent Assembly, a body of 545 Maduro loyalists elected last Sunday in a vote that the firm which 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 Cuba-style dictatorship. Maduro has said it would give more representation to average citizens, and its members range from slum dwellers and fisherman to top government officials.
On Saturday, the newly installed assembly replaced Ortega Diaz 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 Diaz, the assembly’s members heard a statement from the president of the pro-government supreme court read aloud. It informed the body of the court’s decision to suspend Ortega Diaz pending an investigation. But the new 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.
“I propose that she be removed immediately from her post,” Cabello said. “ Not suspended, but removed”
Ortega Diaz 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, inhumane treatment, the use of military justice to judge civilians and the planting of evidence.”
Ortega Diaz represents a certain political camp in Venezuela of leftist populists who have broken with Maduro. She was, and still is, a Chavista – or a backer of Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez, who anointed Maduro as his successor before his death in 2013.
For years, she backed Maduro, including legal action against leading dissident Leopoldo Lopez, 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 government pressure tactics.
The opposition leaders who have led the most recent uprising — four months of street protests against the government — once saw her as an enemy. But after her break with the government, 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 which has now been pushed aside by Maduro’s new Constituent Assembly. “Together, in the defense of the constitution and democracy, we will overcome the dictatorship.”
Ortega Diaz said she was in Maracay, a city 75 miles west of Caracas, when she heard the news. She said she did not know how many of her employees remained in the building.
A senior official in the prosecutor’s office, who declined to be named given the sensitivity of the situation, said staff members were being sequestered by the national guard.
“There are employees inside the office, and they aren’t being allowed to leave or to receive food from outside,” the official said. “This is a kidnapping.”
Ortega Diaz has already defied the Supreme Court. A month ago, the court announced it would conduct a preliminary hearing on whether to suspend Ortega Diaz. She refused to attend, leading the court to freeze her assets and prohibit her from leaving the country.
On Friday, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, an organ of the Organization of American States, warned Venezuela not to target Ortega Diaz and her family.
¨They’re in a grave and urgent situation and their rights and integrity face imminent irreparable risk,” the written statement said. The body cited worrying comments by high ranking officials suggesting Ortega Diaz is backing “terrorist” acts and government betrayal.
Gabriela Ramirez, a former national ombudsman on human rights under the government who, like Ortega Diaz, recently broke with Maduro, said the move against the chief prosecutor amounted to the start of a new campaign against opponents. She feared the new assembly would give Maduro legal cover to act more forcefully.
“This is the establishment, through the naked force of the state, of a parallel justice system,” Ramirez said.
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