Venezuela's attorney general on Thursday sought a court order to halt the installation of a new National Assembly because of the suspected commission of crimes during last weekend's vote to elect delegates.
Atty. Gen. Luisa Ortega Diaz, a critic of socialist President Nicolas Maduro, said she had opened an investigation into alleged voter fraud in connection with the controversial balloting. Ortega, who had filed complaints with the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of a new assembly, filed Thursday's request in a lower court.
The election came amid a rising toll of deaths and arrests tied to four months of violent clashes between antigovernment protesters and authorities. The new assembly is expected to rewrite the nation's constitution, which leaders of the opposition-controlled National Assembly say is a way for Maduro to skirt the democratic process.
Maduro, who met with delegates Wednesday night, said the newly elected assembly would hold its first meeting Friday instead of Thursday.
He said he stood by the vote, which was boycotted by the opposition, despite the British company that provided voting machines saying the ballot was tampered with and the company could not endorse the results.
The National Electoral Council denied any implication of ballot manipulation.
Ortega said in a CNN interview that an investigation of the voting is important because a new constitution is illegal to begin with and because of its long-term effect on Venezuelans.
"This [allegation] is too serious and we have to determine who is responsible," Ortega said, adding that she would soon question members of the electoral council about alleged fraud in the vote tally. "This is another facet of an illegal process, the constitutional assembly."
Pushed by Maduro as necessary to bring order to Venezuela, the new charter has been criticized as opening the door to dictatorship. On Sunday, voters elected 537 members of a new constitutional assembly who will convene Friday to begin drafting a document.
The delegates, all of whom were candidates put forth by Maduro, are expected to replace the democratically elected and opposition-controlled National Assembly and hand additional powers to Maduro, who has threatened opposition leaders, news media and lawmakers with jail terms.
Ortega has declared the constitutional assembly to be illegal because the president failed to ask voters to first authorize it by approving it in a nationwide referendum as called for in the 1999 constitution.
"The country is headed toward dictatorship. If we continue without agreement, we will lose all traces of democracy," Ortega said. " We have to rebuild the nation by means of a national accord."
In a televised speech Wednesday night, Maduro denied the allegations, saying Antonio Mugica, chief executive of the voting-machine company, Smartmatic, was trying to "stain the electoral process." He also said U.S. sanctions leveled against him this week would not derail the constitutional assembly.
"They call me a dictator. I am not a dictator," Maduro said.
Denying any voter fraud, he said more people would have voted for the assembly had their way to the polls not been blocked by protesters, Nevertheless, he said, he had ordered an audit of Sunday's vote by a commission headed by Jorge Rodriguez, a loyalist who is the Caracas mayor.
Also Thursday, the Venezuelan Penal Forum civil society group said a total of 130 people have died in four months of protest-related violence, while 5,051 have been arrested, 1,383 of whom are still in jail. The group said that of those still in custody, 620 could be classified as political prisoners.
Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota, Colombia, respectively.
2:32 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times reporting.