Venezuelan court sends to prison 2 opposition leaders detained in raids

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, branded a “dictator” by the U.S. on Monday, set out to act like one on Tuesday, sending masked state security agents to seize two opposition leaders from their homes in the middle of the night.

A few hours later, Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma were said to be back in military prison. The Maduro-stacked Supreme Court accused them of violating their house-arrest terms by making political statements. Both had condemned the election Sunday of a new legislative body with nearly unlimited powers.

The violence-marred vote, widely viewed as fraudulent, prompted the Trump administration to slap sanctions on Maduro and declare him a dictator. Detaining opponents is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes consolidating power. The White House again called Venezuela a dictatorship Tuesday after the raids on the opposition.

Top Maduro deputies spent Tuesday reaffirming their loyalty on state-run television, which ignored dramatic videos posted online of the pre-dawn detentions of López and Ledezma.

The Venezuelan court alleged that López, 46, and Ledezma, 62, plotted to escape. López’s attorney, Juan Carlos Gutiérrez, told reporters that López never planned to flee.

López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, posted security-camera video of agents shoving her husband into a marked car at 12:27 a.m.

“We don’t know where he is or where they’re taking him,” Tintori wrote. “Maduro is responsible if anything happens to him.”

Ledezma was taken to the Ramo Verde military prison, an infamous jail for political prisoners about an hour southwest of Caracas, according to his wife, Mitzy Capriles.

A video shared by Ledezma’s family on Twitter showed camouflage-clad agents of the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service, known as SEBIN, pulling Ledezma through a building’s glass front doors. He wore blue pajamas.

“They’re taking Ledezma!” a woman screams at her neighbors in the video. “It’s a dictatorship!”

López, Venezuela’s most high-profile political prisoner, was first detained three years ago amid massive student-led opposition protests. The government accused him of inciting violence and sentenced him to 13 years in prison. He became the face of Venezuela’s opposition, with international human-rights advocates repeatedly denouncing his prolonged periods of solitary confinement.

Citing López’s supposed ill health, his jailers released him to house arrest last month, ahead of Sunday’s vote for a national constituent assembly. Last week, he posted a video online rejecting the election. His attorney said he never disobeyed the terms of his house arrest, which the attorney said prohibited López only from speaking publicly about his case.

Tintori posted another video online Tuesday, pre-recorded on July 17, in which López acknowledged he might be arrested again.

“If you’re watching this video, it’s because that’s what happened: because they came and put me back in prison illegally. Imprisoned for my ideas,” he said. “We know the risk we’re running as a family.”

The couple has two young children. López said in the video that Tintori is pregnant. Capriles told CNN en Español that Tintori is about 16 weeks along.

“Don’t ever give up,” López implored.

Ledezma, a Caracas mayor, released a video Monday noting he ran the risk of returning to prison. The court said he had been barred from making any public statements.

“This was a fraud foretold,” Ledezma said of the election.

Ledezma was first detained in 2015 and later placed under house arrest. He was “kidnapped” Tuesday morning, one of his daughters, Oriette Ledezma, said on social media.

Ledezma’s downstairs neighbor, Maria Elvira Palacios, said she heard pounding and yelling around 12:40 a.m. and saw agents carrying rifles.

“It was terrible,” she said. “It’s such a harsh thing, to take a person who’s sleeping in his bed.”

In Washington, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the White House “holds Maduro personally responsible for the health and safety of both men and any other seized by his dictatorship.”

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"Mr. López and Mr. Ledezma are political prisoners being held illegally by this regime," Trump said in a statement late Tuesday.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio — a Florida Republican who addressed Venezuelans in a speech aired late Monday on Globovisión, an independent news channel — noted Tuesday that Vice President Mike Pence spoke to López by phone Friday.

“There should be no doubt that his arrest is a direct challenge to President Trump,” Rubio said.

In Venezuela, state-run television showed government official after government official delivering statements of defiance toward the U.S. and international community. Caracas Mayor Jorge Rodríguez compared battling U.S. sanctions to Venezuelan liberator Simón Bolívar taking on colonialist Spain.

“We’ll defend the most sacred interests of the Venezuelan people at all costs,” Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López vowed.

Maduro warned Monday that the new assembly, packed with members of his ruling socialist party, would result in “a jail cell” for some opposition lawmakers and anyone conspiring against his government with “Emperor Donald Trump.”

“Go ahead,” Maduro taunted. “Bring on your sanctions, Donald Trump.”

Hours earlier, Maduro had become the fourth sitting head of state personally sanctioned by the U.S., along with Bashar Assad of Syria, Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

More sanctions are expected, though the Trump administration has yet to follow through with promised economic penalties, including placing potential financial limits on Venezuela’s all-important oil industry.

“The president is prepared to respond further as Maduro’s actions toward his people dictate,” said Fernando Cutz, South America director for the National Security Council.

The opposition-held National Assembly convened at the legislative palace Tuesday, with ambassadors of Britain, France, Mexico and Spain in attendance to support the democratically elected parliament. The new constituent assembly must be seated by Wednesday.

The National Electoral Council, whose members are almost all Maduro loyalists, claimed more than 8 million people voted in Sunday’s election, a figure disputed by opposition leaders and independent analysts who estimated turnout was less than half that. Maduro bragged about receiving congratulations from Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Russia.

The electoral council’s lone opposition member, Luis Emilio Rondón, said Tuesday that he couldn’t back Sunday’s results, citing ignored protocols, skipped audits and other irregularities.

“The doubts the Venezuelan people might have over the results are reasonable,” he said. “I can’t endorse the consistency or veracity of the results.”

Opposition leaders have plans for further protests. But left without any avenues to power, some demonstrators struggled Monday to hide their weary disappointment in the wake of the questionable results.

“In 120 days of peaceful protest against the regime, they’ve never let us reach the places where we’ve wanted to go,” 45-year-old Wilman Asuaje lamented. “I’m a little disillusioned by the results, but we’re not defeated.”

Mazzei reported from Miami. McClatchy White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez contributed from Washington.