CARACAS (REUTERS) - Venezuela jailed two leading critics of President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday (Aug 1) in a fresh blow to the opposition after the election of a new political body with power to rewrite the constitution and strengthen the hand of the leftist government.
The United States clamped sanctions Maduro on Monday, calling him a “dictator” for Sunday’s contentious election of a constituent assembly, which the opposition boycotted and denounced as illegitimate.
In a statement announcing the jailing of Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma, the pro-government Supreme Court said they were planning to flee the country and had violated the terms of their house arrest by making political statements and speaking to media.
But government opponents called the abrupt removal of the men from their homes by security forces a sign of Maduro’s determination to silence rivals and stamp out four months of massive street protests against him.
About 120 people have been killed in the unrest, including 10 in a sudden increase in political bloodletting on Sunday.
Lopez had been held in the military jail of Ramo Verde until last month, when he was unexpectedly released in what was seen as a potential breakthrough in the country’s long-running political standoff.
Attempts to get the opposition and the government to reach a negotiated deal subsequently floundered, however, and allies said Lopez, 46, may have been jailed again because he rejected government deals.
“They have kidnapped Leopoldo Lopez because he simply would not break under the pressures and false promises of the regime,”said Freddy Guevara, a legislator in the Popular Will party led by Lopez.
A US-educated economist and former mayor in Caracas, Lopez is beloved by some in the opposition for his hardline anti-government stance.
The government sees him as an elitist coup-monger, and even some opposition sympathisers have criticised him for being hot-headed and authoritarian.
Both Lopez and Ledezma had been urging protests against Sunday’s vote, which they charged was rigged and a naked power grab by Maduro.
Blamed by many for an unprecedented economic crisis and rising levels of poverty in Venezuela, Maduro has faced almost daily protests demanding freedom for jailed politicians, humanitarian aid to combat food and medicine shortages, and early elections to replace him.
Condemnation of Tuesday’s arrests came, among others, from the United Nations human rights chief and the president of the European Parliament.
TAKEN IN HIS PAJAMAS
A video on social media showed Ledezma, dressed in his pajamas, being dragged out of his building as a woman screamed, “They’re taking away Ledezma! Please neighbours! This is a dictatorship!”
Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, posted a separate video that appeared to show him being led into a vehicle emblazoned with the name of Venezuela’s intelligence agency.
“12:27 in the morning: the moment when the dictatorship kidnaps Leopoldo at my house,” she wrote.
Lopez was originally arrested for his role in leading street demonstrations against Maduro in 2014. Ledezma, a 62-year-old veteran politician, had been arrested on charges of plotting a coup.
Maduro accuses the opposition of continuing to seek a coup against him and says the constituent assembly is designed to bring peace back to the volatile nation. About 120 people have been killed in anti-government protests since April.
In addition rewriting the constitution and superseding other institutions, the constituent assembly will have the power to dismiss the opposition-led congress, eliminating any formal political challenge to Maduro.
Lopez’s lawyer, Juan Carlos Gutierrez, told local media no arrest warrant for him had been issued and that Lopez had fully complied with terms of his house arrest, which he said only banned him from leaving his home and talking to media about his upcoming trial.
He said Lopez and Ledezma were both in Ramo Verde, the military jail in a slum area about an hour’s drive from the capital.