A newly-installed constitutional assembly has ousted Venezuela’s chief prosecutor in a sign that President Nicolas Maduro’s government intends to move swiftly against critics amid a fast-moving political crisis.
A total of 545 pro-government delegates voted unanimously to remove Luisa Ortega from her post as the nation’s top law enforcement official and replace her with a staunch government supporter.
They said they were acting in response to a ruling by the government-stacked supreme court, which banned Ms Ortega from leaving the country and freezing her bank accounts while it weighs criminal charges against her for alleged irregularities.
Ms Ortega, a long-time loyalist who broke with the socialist government in April, refused to recognise the decision and vowed to continue defending the rights of Venezuelans from Mr Maduro’s “coup” against the constitution “with my last breath”.
She said: “This is just a tiny example of what’s coming for everyone that dares to oppose this totalitarian form of government.
“If they’re doing this to the chief prosecutor, imagine the helpless state all Venezuelans live in.”
Earlier, Ms Ortega was pushed and barred from entering her office by dozens of national guardsmen in riot gear who took control of the entrance to the building.
She alleged that authorities were desperate to get their hands on dossiers containing information on dirty dealings by high-level officials, including sensitive details about millions of dollars in bribes paid by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.
Assembly delegates later swore in as her replacement Ombudsman Tarek William Saab, who was recently sanctioned by the Trump administration for failing to protect protesters from abuses in his role as the nation’s top human rights official.
Members of the all-powerful constitutional assembly had pledged in their first meeting to move quickly against Mr Maduro’s opponents.
Former foreign minister Delcy Rodriguez said on Friday after she was chosen to lead the assembly: “Don’t think we’re going to wait weeks, months or years.
“Tomorrow we start to act. The violent fascists, those who wage economic war on the people, those who wage psychological war: justice is coming for you.”
The constitutional assembly was installed despite strong criticism from both at home and abroad, over fears it will be a tool for imposing dictatorship. Supporters say it will pacify a country rocked by violent protests.
The installation is virtually certain to intensify a political crisis that has brought four months of protests in which at least 120 people have died and hundreds more have been jailed.
Mr Maduro also wants the assembly to strip opposition MPs of their constitutional immunity from prosecution, saying their constant conspiring to oust him should not be protected.
While members of congress say they will only be removed by force, the opposition is struggling to regain its footing in the face of the government’s strong-arm tactics and the re-emergence of old, internal divisions.
Several opposition activists have been jailed in recent days, others are rumoured to be seeking exile and one leader has broken ranks from the opposition alliance to say his party will field candidates in regional elections despite widespread distrust of the electoral system.
In a sign of its demoralised state, only a few hundred demonstrators showed up for a Friday protest against the constitutional assembly, one of the smallest turnouts in months.
Also on Saturday, the South American trade bloc Mercosur moved to suspend Venezuela for failing to follow democratic norms.
Venezuela was previously suspended in December for failing to uphold commitments it made when it joined the group in 2012.
The new decision will make it harder for the country to return to good standing since the new suspension can be lifted only when the bloc is satisfied that Venezuela has restored democratic order.
Argentine foreign minister Jorge Faurie said: “Today in Venezuela there is no democracy.
“Essentially what Mercosur is saying is: Without democracy, no, you cannot be a part of Mercosur.”
Mr Maduro responded by calling the move part of a dirty campaign led by the Trump administration to discredit Venezuela and get its hands on its vast oil reserves.