Chief prosecutor ousted as new Venezuelan assembly targets Maduro foes

Venezuelan attorney general Luisa Ortega speaks to reporters outside her office in Caracas after security forces surrounded the entrance Saturday. She was later dismissed by a new all-powerful constituent assembly.
Venezuelan attorney general Luisa Ortega speaks to reporters outside her office in Caracas after security forces surrounded the entrance Saturday. She was later dismissed by a new all-powerful constituent assembly. AP

Targeting one of the most influential critics of President Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s new all-powerful assembly dismissed chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega on Saturday, following through on its threat to silence the government’s restive opposition.

In a scene that not long ago would have seemed inconceivable, Ortega fled her office straddling a motorcycle — squeezed between two bodyguards — after confronting security officers in riot gear. She was denied entry into the Public Ministry, which was taken over by the Bolivarian National Guard.

“Liberty has been lost in this country,” a breathless and visibly shaken Ortega declared.

Ortega, a onetime loyalist, became the first Maduro adversary felled by a new constituent assembly that was sworn in Friday after a suspicious election. Her appointed replacement, Tarek William Saab, the former public defender already under U.S. sanctions for abusing human rights, promised to pursue charges against political leaders he blamed for months of street protests that turned deadly in clashes with government forces.

“We’re going to hold our heads up high and not allow any empire, no matter how much it tries, to drench this country in blood,” he proclaimed.

The Organization of American States, several countries in the region and opposition leaders condemned Ortega’s removal as illegal, arguing only the rightful legislative power — the opposition-held parliament, known as the National Assembly — could appoint or dismiss the attorney general.

That didn’t stop the Maduro-stacked Supreme Court — whose eight constitutional justices are also under U.S. sanctions — from granting a previously filed request to remove Ortega and ordering her to trial. The court barred Ortega from public office, froze her bank accounts and other assets, and banned any foreign travel. Maduro and his allies now control every public institution.

Calling the country’s political crisis “a difficult and dark time,” National Assembly President Julio Borges urged the military to step in to restore democratic order.

“To us, it’s very clear that all this government can turn to is violence and brute force,” he told reporters. “The government is completely rotten.”

In its first session Saturday, the constituent assembly, which set a two-year term, left no doubt it plans to act like the government’s parallel legislative branch, usurping the role of parliament. Though the assembly didn’t formally dissolve the parliament, it decided to take over the entire legislative palace — a move intended to keep the sitting parliament out. The assembly has been meeting in a room separate from the main parliamentary hall, where opposition lawmakers vowed to hold session Monday.

The assembly’s 545 delegates were elected last Sunday in a vote boycotted by the opposition and widely seen as fraudulent.

Ortega, who tried unsuccessfully to block the new assembly from its power grab, launched a criminal investigation into elections supervisors Wednesday after Smartmatic, the company that provides the country with its voting machines and software, said it couldn’t stand by results the company said had been inflated by at least 1 million of a purported nearly 8.1 million votes. At least 10 people died on Election Day as the government fought off protests.

“Not only is there repression,” Ortega said Saturday. Not only are they arbitrarily detaining people and making them face military prosecutor. Now they won’t let the attorney general get into its national headquarters!”

“I fear for the country,” she added vowing to keep fighting the government. “I fear for Venezuelans’ safety.”

She accused Maduro and his allies of trying to hide damning evidence against them, specifically when it comes to the far-reaching bribery scandal involving construction giant Odebrecht.

“You know what they want to accomplish with this?” Ortega, 59, said before making her motorcycle escape. “Hide Odebrecht evidence. Hide evidence of corruption in Venezuela. Evidence of human-rights abuses.”

Venezuela Political Crisis(2)
Venezuelan Bolivarian National Guard officers lineup outside of Public Ministry in Caracas on Saturday. Ariana Cubillos AP

In a statement published later — still on Public Ministry letterhead — Ortega remained defiant, saying she didn’t accept the court’s decision, “in violation of the constitution and the rule of law.”

“Venezuela is in the midst of a coup against the constitution, promoted by the Supreme Court and executive,” she said. “That’s the only word for what we’re experiencing and it should alarm the international community.”

Maduro had threatened that the new assembly, tasked with rewriting the constitution, would not only get rid of Ortega, but also target opposition lawmakers from the democratically elected parliament.

“Tomorrow we start to act,” Assembly President Delcy Rodríguez said Friday. “The violent fascists, those who wage economic war on the people, those who wage psychological war, justice is coming for you.”

Ortega’s ouster Saturday was met with enthusiastic support from delegates, all from the ruling socialist party.

“Traitor!” they hollered.

Delegate Diosdado Cabello, a key socialist party leader, cast Saturday’s action as a promise fulfilled.

“This shouldn’t surprise anybody,” he said. “Here we must have justice, not revenge.”

In Miami, a gaggle of Venezuelans and local supporters, including Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Republican, gathered Saturday at the Torch of Friendship downtown in a display of solidarity with the crippled opposition.

The Trump administration has threatened further action against assembly delegates. President Maduro, Vice President Tareck El Aissami, Interior Minister Néstor Reverol and Attorney General Saab are all under U.S. sanctions.

What comes next “really depends on what the government does,” Carlos Diaz-Rosillo, White House director of policy and interagency coordination, told the Miami Herald in an interview Friday.

While news of Ortega’s ouster spread, South American trade bloc Mercosur indefinitely suspended Venezuela’s membership, pending the restoration of democratic order. Mercosur, like other international bodies and countries in Latin America and Europe, had warned Venezuela not to install the new assembly, which the U.S. and other regional powers consider illegitimate.

“Venezuela won’t be kicked out of Mercosur,” Maduro countered in a Saturday interview with an Argentine AM radio station. “We are Mercosur in heart, soul and life.”

Cody Weddle contributed from Caracas.