CARACAS – Venezuela’s supreme court ordered the removal and arrest of a Caracas-area mayor at the heart of recent anti-government protests and President Nicolás Maduro’s all-powerful constitutional assembly planned to meet again Tuesday, forging ahead on vows to punish the socialist leader’s foes.
The government-packed high court sentenced Ramón Muchacho to 15 months in prison for not following an order to remove barricades set up in the leafy Chacao district of eastern Caracas where the Emory University MBA graduate has been mayor since 2013. He’s the fourth opposition mayor whose arrest the high court has sought in the past two weeks. The court also ordered an investigation into another prominent Caracas-area mayor, David Smolansky, for the same alleged crimes.
Muchacho’s whereabouts were not immediately known, but he denounced the ruling on Twitter, saying that “all of the weight of the revolutionary injustice has fallen on my shoulders” for doing his job to guarantee the constitutional right to protest.
Chacao was previously governed by Leopoldo López, the most prominent activist to have been jailed by the Maduro government, and is the main gathering point for protests that have left at least 124 dead and hundreds more injured or arrested.
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Since the disputed election, security forces have stepped up their presence. The U.N.’s human rights commissioner warned of in a report issued Tuesday of “widespread and systematic use” of excessive force, arbitrary detention and other rights violations against demonstrators and detainees in Venezuela.
In the face of increasingly tough tactics, and divisions within the opposition about how to confront the government, turnout at recent demonstrations has been small.
“Maduro knows this country is ungovernable,” lawmaker Juan Requenses said late Monday in calling for a new wave of street demonstrations. “The only thing he wants today is for us to abandon the street.”
Opposition parties face a rapidly approaching deadline to decide whether they will take part in regional elections scheduled for December. Candidates are expected to sign up to run this week.
Opposition members refused to participate in the election for delegates to the constitutional assembly but have thus far been divided on taking part in the contests for governors.
While Maduro’s popular support is estimated to run at no higher than 20 percent, some opposition leaders are skeptical of running in regional elections they fear could be rigged. The official turnout count in the constitutional assembly election has been questioned at home and abroad. The CEO of voting technology company Smartmatic said last week that the results were “without a doubt” tampered with and off by at least 1 million votes.