Opposition fears witch hunt as Venezuelan government vows to crack down on protest leaders


Venezuela issued arrest warrants after Wednesday’s violent protests that left three dead and more than 60 injured. But the opposition fears a crackdown could be in works.

A day after national protests left at least three dead and more than 60 injured, Venezuela’s opposition blamed the government for instigating the violence, and President Nicolás Maduro accused foes of trying to topple his administration.

With scattered protests still simmering around the country, both sides were calling for calm even as the government issued arrest warrants for a handful of opposition figures. There were also suspicions that higher-profile targets might be in the crosshairs.

On Thursday, the Voluntad Popular opposition political party said it had “unofficial” information that its leader, Leopoldo Lopez, was on the government’s detention list.

Later in the day, Pedro Carreño, a ruling party National Assembly member, said the attorney general’s office was looking for López, whom he called a “cowardly assassin.”

“Intelligence has been activated at ports, airports, and borders,” he wrote on Twitter.

Voluntad Popular spokesman Carlos Vecchio accused the government of going on a witch hunt to silence opposition voices.

On Wednesday, “a country that wants change marched but who wants violence?” he asked. “The government is solely responsible for the violence that happened after the march, because they control the guns, the military, and the police — they control everything.”

Two opposition protesters and one government supporter died Wednesday as a national demonstration spearheaded by university students turned deadly. The government said some 66 people were injured.

While social networks showed images of police and government supporters shooting into the crowds, the government said the opposition was to blame for the bloodletting.

Maduro accused a “Nazi fascist” faction within the opposition of inciting violence, which he said was designed to depose his administration. Interior Minster Miguel Rodriguez Torres went further, saying protesters were trying to spark a “civil war.”

José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, called for transparency.

“What Venezuela urgently needs is for these killings to be investigated and the killers brought to justice, no matter their political affiliation,” he said. “What Venezuela does not need is authorities scapegoating political opponents or shutting down news outlets whose coverage they don’t like.”

“If it turns out López has been criminally charged without any serious evidence that he instigated the violence, this would clearly be an abuse of power,” he added.

Student protests were exacerbated last week when authorities detained some youth leaders. On Wednesday, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in several cities, where many are chafing under 15 years of socialist policies that have reduced income inequality but also saddled the country with the hemisphere’s highest inflation and among its highest murder rates.

Maduro seems determined to keep a lid on the protests as his administration is preparing to mark the one-year anniversary on March 5 of the death of President Hugo Chávez.

On Thursday, a coalition of groups accused the government of stifling media coverage of the protests with threats of reprisals. Colombia-based NTN24 television, which is shown on cable, saw its broadcast cut at the height of the protests. The station said that regulators had taken it off the air. As of Thursday evening, it was still broadcasting static.

Late Thursday Lopez dared the government to arrest him.

“You don’t have the b---- to put me in jail?” He wrote Maduro on Twitter. “Or are you waiting for your orders from Havana? The truth is on our side.”

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