Top Venezuelan opposition leaders taken into custody amid fears of wider crackdowns
(Sarah Parnass,Anthony Faiola/The Washington Post) August 1 at 3:38 PM
CARACAS, Venezuela â" Masked security forces carried out predawn raids Tuesday and hauled away two top Venezuelan opposition leaders, suggesting an expanded crackdown on dissent after widely denounced elections aimed at boosting the authoritarian government.
The moves against Leopoldo LÃ³pez and Antonio Ledezma, who were both already under house arrest, could intensify the international fallout after Sundayâs election, which created a new super congress stocked with backers of the government of President NicolÃ¡s Maduro.
The vote for a new âConstitutional Assemblyâ was decried as fraud-ridden by the opposition and prompted the Trump administration on Monday to slap sanctions on Maduro. A blitz of videos emerged related to the arrests, adding a cinematic quality to a turn of events that opponents decried as the actions of a fast-cementing dictatorship.
In one video posted online by Ledezmaâs wife, security forces apparently drag the opposition leader between the glass doors of a building. A man cries âHelp!â before another voice shouts: âTheyâre taking Ledezma!â
A woman screams âDictatorship! Dictatorship!â as Ledezma, 62, is carried into the darkness by troops in camouflage from the intelligence services.(Reuters)
Both men were taken to Ramo Verde military prison southwest of Caracas, aides and family members said. The heavily guarded hilltop complex is a notorious detention center for political and military prisoners.
In Washington, the White House on Tuesday denounced the arrests and Maduroâs âoutrageous seizure of power through sham elections.â Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, âThe United States condemns the actions of the Maduro dictatorship, and we hold Maduro personall y responsible for the health and safety of both men and any others seized by his dictatorship.â
After the election results were announced Sunday, Maduro gave a bellicose victory speech on national television that included threats to jail political leaders who were encouraging protests. Maduro, the anointed successor of leftist president Hugo ChÃ¡vez, who died in 2013, also said that a âtruth commissionâ would be created to âtake parliamentary immunity from the legislators who shouldnât have it.â
[Options shrink for Venezuelaâs opposition]
The newly minted legislators from Sundayâs vote, including Maduroâs wife and son, are set to take over the National Assembly building from democratically elected lawmakers on Thursday.
The outgoing lawmakers held a defiant session Tuesday, condemning the election as a âfarceâ and claiming that the government invented millions of votes. Opposition politicians also denounced the raids early Tuesday while vowing to continue their resistance.
âImprisonments and persecution of the leadership will not stop the rebellion,â tweeted Freddy Guevara, vice president of the National Assembly and a member of LÃ³pezâs party.Placards depicting Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo LÃ³pez during a rally against President NicolÃ¡s Maduro's government in Caracas on July 9. (Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters)
Already near-worthless, the local currency â" the bolivar â" continued to collapse, with its black-market rate against the dollar falling nearly 10 percent overnight. Government channels, meanwhile, showed images of citizens celebrating the results of Sundayâs vote, along with TV advertisements denouncing opposition violence.
The pro-gove rnment election commission said the names of at least 364 of the 545 new Constitutional Assembly members have been transmitted to Maduro. But the government also suffered defections. Three leftist legislators in the opposition-led National Assembly publicly broke with the governmentâs legislative bloc.
âWeâre socialists and believe in Bolivarian ideals,â said Eustoquio Contreras, one of the dissenting legislators, using the term reserved for Chavezâs ideology. âOur difference is in the way of confronting the crisis.â
In a sign of the socialist governmentâs growing isolation, ambassadors from Britain, France, Spain and Mexico went to the National Assembly on Tuesday to support the lawmakers. âWe diplomats are here to show support,â said Franceâs ambassador, Romain Nadal. âThe Venezuelan people want peace, democracy and its institutions, and we are here to help.â
In a statement, the pro-government supreme court said it revoked LÃ³pezâs and Ledezmaâs house arrest after âverifyingâ violations of the terms of detention. It said intelligence officials had uncovered alleged escape plots of both men. The court also said the conditions of the house arrest prohibited political activity or declarations.
Authorities only last month released LÃ³pez, 46, after nearly 3 1/2 years behind bars and placed him under house arrest. At the time, the government called the decision a humanitarian gesture, citing his poor health, though supporters saw the move as an attempt to reduce international pressure.
In a video posted on Twitter by Lilian Tintori, LÃ³pezâs wife, masked security forces in riot gear can be seen in front of what appears to be the familyâs house, leading a man through the door and putting him in an official car shortly after midnight.
âMaduro is responsible if something happens,â Tintori tweeted.
Venezuelaâs most prominent political prisoner and former mayor of a di strict in Caracas, LÃ³pez was arrested in early 2014 and handed a 13-year jail term after being convicted of inciting violence during a street protest. He became a symbol of resistance for opponents of the government, his portrait printed in bright colors on the T-shirts and flags of protesters who chanted, âFree Leopoldo!â
At the time of his release, LÃ³pez, who was forbidden from speaking to the media, issued a statement saying he was ready to return to prison to âfight for freedom.â
In a movie-like twist, LÃ³pezâs family also tweeted a prerecorded video of the opposition leader that was made for release in the event he was seized.
Sitting with his wife on a couch in their family home, he called on the nation to continue the fight. And he announced that his wife is pregnant with their third child.
âDespite knowing the risks weâre putting our family in, weâre willing to advance and continue.â he said.
In an interview, Ledezmaâ s wife, Mitzy Capriles de Ledezma, said a Twitter video that her husband posted Monday may have been one reason he was hauled away.
In the video, Ledezma, 62, with a Venezuelan flag in the background, called the just-elected constituent assembly a fraud, criticized the armed forces and rejected the supreme court. Ledezma also critiqued the opposition for its lack of strategy.
âOne more time NicolÃ¡s Maduro shows off his dictator-like qualities,â Capriles de Ledezma said Tuesday. She argued that the move smacked of desperation: âThe fact that Antonio is again in prison means Maduro knows heâs on his way out.â
Ledezmaâs daughter, Oriette Ledezma, issued a video statement saying her father was âkidnappedâ by Maduroâs forces in a predawn raid.
âHe was in his pajamas,â she said. âA group of masked men in camouflage took him. .â.â. We make the regime responsible for his life and physical integrity.â
Ledezma was previousl y arrested in December 2015. Maduro at the time said he was part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. In May of that year, he was remanded to house arrest after undergoing surgery for a hernia.
In 2013, Ledezma, from the Alianza Bravo Pueblo party, was reelected mayor. In January 2017, Maduro created a higher executive post in the city, âchief of the greater state of Caracas,â and named a pro-government official to the job.
Rachelle Krygier contributed to this report.
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