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Fired Prosecutor Flees Venezuela Amid Crackdown -- WSJ

19 Aug 2017 6:32 am
By Kejal Vyasand Mayela Armas 

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (August 19, 2017).

CARACAS -- Venezuela's former attorney general Luisa Ortega fled to neighboring Colombia on Friday, seeking protection from President Nicolás Maduro's administration that is tightening its hold on power and cracking down on political rivals.

Colombian immigration officials said Ms. Ortega and her husband, German Ferrer, a congressman, flew to Bogotá in a private jet from the Caribbean island of Aruba, after Venezuela's government leveled corruption allegations on Wednesday against the two former ruling party loyalists. The couple says the accusations are in retaliation to their break from Mr. Maduro and their condemnation of his efforts to dissolve congress.

Ms. Ortega was fired earlier this month by the constituent assembly, an all-powerful government entity created by President Maduro's supporters through a vote widely condemned as fraudulent. The same 545-member assembly on Friday voted unanimously to take over legislative powers from the opposition-controlled congress in the latest sign of what critics say is the country's fall into totalitarian rule.

The assembly voted to grant themselves lawmaking functions for loosely defined themes, including socioeconomic matters and finances, as well as preserving security and sovereignty.

Opposition lawmakers and human-rights groups had warned for months that Mr. Maduro's creation of the governmental body was aimed at helping his administration stay in power by silencing rivals and indefinitely postponing elections as the country grapples with an economic crisis.

"The constituent assembly has demolished democracy in Venezuela," Julio Borges, head of the country's congress, said in an interview. "We do not recognize their decision."

Mr. Borges said opposition legislators on Saturday will address foreign diplomats in Caracas in a bid to ramp up international pressure on Mr. Maduro.

The president's efforts to reduce the power of congress led Ms. Ortega, who served as Venezuela's top prosecutor for a decade, to break ranks from Mr. Maduro in late March.

Since then, she has become a persistent critic of the government, denouncing rights abuses by security forces that were used to quell four months of antigovernment demonstrations and led to the killing of more than 120 people, most of them protesters. Recently, she has threatened to expand corruption investigations linked to top aides of Mr. Maduro and even share information with foreign governments.

Earlier this week, Venezuela's intelligence police, the Sebin, raided the home of Ms. Ortega who told The Wall Street Journal in a recent interview that she has been moving between friends' apartments.

More than 60 other prosecutors from the ministry that she used to run have also been banned from leaving Venezuela and are facing investigations by Mr. Maduro's allies, Ms. Ortega has said.

To sideline Ms. Ortega as well as congress, Mr. Maduro has turned to the constituent assembly, a body whose powers supersede all other branches of government and aims to redraft the constitution. The assembly was formed last month in a vote that was deemed a fraud by opposition leaders as well as the company that sells Venezuela its voting machines.

Governments across the region have refused to recognize the assembly and its creation has led the U.S. to impose sanctions on Venezuelan officials, including Mr. Maduro.

Opposition lawmakers on Friday boycotted a session of the constituent assembly, drawing the ire of Delcy Rodriguez, the Maduro aide who is leading the assembly.

"Get to work, you bums," she said during a televised session of the assembly, pointing to a row of empty chairs reserved for the assembly's rivals in the Legislative Palace. "No one will be able to impede our decisions."

Critics say that one of the goals of the cash-strapped Maduro government is to obtain the ability, held by congress, to authorize international loans. For months, opposition lawmakers have called upon major financial institutions to blacklist Venezuela for the government's actions, including alleged human-rights abuses.

Any agreements signed by the assembly will be deemed illegal, congressional leaders say.

"This is a very difficult legal question," said Caracas-based political analyst Dimitris Pantoulas. "The constituent assembly is supposed to be the supreme power of the state, but what they do won't be totally legal because so many countries don't accept it."

--Mayela Armas in Caracas contributed to this article.

Write to Kejal Vyas at kejal.vyas@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 19, 2017 02:32 ET (06:32 GMT)

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