In the latest affront to Venezuela’s bruised opposition, Deputy María Corina Machado on Tuesday was barred from entering the National Assembly as the government said she was no longer a public official.
The action against Machado, a vocal administration critic and a congresswoman since 2010, comes as three opposition leaders have been jailed in recent weeks amid anti-government protests that have left at least 39 dead and more than 500 injured.
Tuesday’s showdown was foreshadowed last week when National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello said Machado had lost her legislative seat when she accepted a Feb. 21 invitation to join Panama’s delegation to the Organization of American States in order to address the body.
The Supreme Constitutional Court on Monday ratified the decision to expel her, saying Machado had violated articles 191 and 197 of the constitution, “which state that deputies to the National Assembly cannot accept public positions without losing their investiture.”
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For government critics, the move is one more sign that President Nicolás Maduro and his Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, have their hands on the scales of justice.
Yvett Lugo, the president of the Caracas Bar Association, called the ruling an act of “judicial terrorism.” In a statement Tuesday, she said the court had violated the constitution by not giving Machado the right to defend herself.
“It’s troubling that the judicial system, instead of being used to peacefully resolve controversies, has become another political tool,” she said.
Cabello had warned Machado not to try to approach the National Assembly, but the ousted deputy held a rally Tuesday morning and marched with followers toward the building in central Caracas. According to local reports, she was stopped about a block away from the legislature by police and the Bolivarian National Guard.
Machado accused the branches of government of “plotting” against her.
“This is a dark day,” she said at the rally. “Today, they’re not only destroying democracy in Venezuela, with this action they are dismantling the Republic.”
Machado is just the latest political casualty of ongoing protests that began in early February over deteriorating security in the border state of Táchira. Since then, they’ve evolved into a national crisis with demonstrators barricading streets in some cities and clashing with security forces.
The government says the protests are cover for an attempted coup by national and international interests, including the United States, and has gone after opposition figures.
In February, the government arrested the head of the Voluntad Popular political party Leopoldo López for his role in the Feb. 12 protests in Caracas. Last month, Daniel Ceballos and Vicenzo Scarano, the opposition mayors of San Cristóbal and San Diego, were jailed for not complying with court orders to clear barricades.
Pro-government groups on Tuesday also marched on the National Assembly and called for an investigation into Machado for treason. Now that she has lost her congressional immunity, she could be vulnerable.
But her barring from congress only seemed to inflame tensions. Opposition forces are calling for another demonstration Friday.
“We are protesting to change the government in a constitutional way,” Freddy Guevara, an official with the Voluntad Popular party, said in a statement. “The motor to achieve this is to stay in the streets and apply constant, firm and organized pressure.”
Human Rights Concerns
Also Tuesday, Amnesty International warned that the violence and disrespect for human rights “risks one of the worst threats to the rule of law in decades.”
In a report titled Venezuela: Human Rights at risk amid protests, the organization documented allegations of torture, arbitrary detentions and illicit use of force during the almost two-month-long crisis.
In particular, the report highlighted two incidents. The first was on Feb. 19, when Geraldine Moreno, a 23-year-old student taking part in demonstrations in Valencia, was allegedly shot in the face with a rubber-pellet shotgun from less than a foot away. She died three days later. Then, on Feb. 21, Daniel Quintero, a 21-year-old student detained in Maracaibo, said he was repeatedly beaten and that the National Guard commander threatened to burn him alive.
But protesters have also resorted to violence and among the 39 dead are eight security officers and public officials, according to the Attorney General’s Office. There have also been 559 injuries and 2,153 arrests, according to those figures. Of those arrested, 168 remain behind bars including 17 members of public security.
“The country runs the risk of descending into a spiral of violence unless steps are taken to bring the conflicting parties around the table,” Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International said in a statement. “This can only happen if both sides fully respect human rights and the rule of law. Unless this happens, the death toll will continue to rise with ordinary people bearing the brunt.”