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In what the opposition calls a 'coup,' Venezuela's high court seizes power from National Assembly

Venezuela slid further into political chaos after supreme court magistrates aligned with socialist President Nicolas Maduro moved to seize power from the congress in what international observers and the country’s opposition leaders called a “coup d’état.”

The magistrates, who have overturned nearly every piece of legislation passed by the opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared late Wednesday night that the assembly was “outside the rule of law” and that the court had the authority to take over congressional duties.

Opposition leaders protested the ruling outside the supreme court in Caracas on Thursday, at times coming to blows with police officers outfitted in riot gear.

“This is trash,” National Assembly President Julio Borges said, raising a copy of the court’s judgment and then ripping it in half.

Borges has called for large-scale protests Saturday, and asked the army to "not remain silent in the face of the rupture of the constitution."

Over the last year, Maduro has sought to consolidate power by jailing opposition members and indefinitely postponing local and state elections. His soldiers have violently repressed protesters angry about shortages of medicines, food and other goods in the face of skyrocketing inflation. Venezuela, once one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries thanks to vast oil reserves, has seen its economy crumble in recent years as oil prices plummeted.

The head of the Organization of American States called for an emergency meeting to address what he called a “self-inflicted coup d’état perpetrated by the Venezuelan regime against the National Assembly, the last branch of government to be legitimized by the will of the people of Venezuela.”

“Unfortunately, what we had warned has now come to pass,” the organization’s secretary general, Luis Almagro, said in a statement.

Earlier this week, Almagro sought to suspend Venezuela from the organization to punish Maduro for jailing opponents and seeking to reduce the power of opposition leaders, who swept congressional elections in 2015 and set out to remove the socialist leader through a recall referendum. But diplomats gathered in Washington from across the hemisphere could not come to an agreement on the matter.

The U.S. State Department on Thursday condemned the court’s decision, saying the move “greatly damages Venezuela’s democratic institutions.”

A State Department statement reiterated Washington's demands that Venezuela hold elections as soon as possible, release political prisoners and allow the National Assembly to perform its constitutional functions.

Carlos Ponce, head of the Latin America program at Freedom House, a Washington-based advocacy group, said the court's action "further dismantles rule of law" in Venezuela. “The judgment eliminates the facade of separation of powers and cements the Maduro dictatorship,” Ponce said.

Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost the 2012 presidential election to Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, said he spoke to Almagro by phone. "What more evidence does the international community need that there is a dictatorship in Venezuela?" he asked.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

Linthicum reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Mogollon from Caracas, Venezuela. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed from Washington.

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