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Venezuela's top prosecutor rebukes Supreme Court power grab as protests continue

Venezuela's top prosecutor rebukes Supreme Court power grab as protests continue
Venezuelan opposition activists scuffle with national guard personnel in riot gear during a protest in front of the Supreme Court in Caracas on Friday. (STR / AFP/Getty Images)

Domestic and international condemnation of court rulings that bolstered the power of embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro grew Friday, with protesters facing off against security forces and the nation's top prosecutor assailing the court's move as a "rupture" of the democratic process.

The rulings by the Maduro-aligned Supreme Court stripped the opposition-controlled national legislature of its powers — an extraordinary move critics labelled a de facto coup d'etat. The Venezuelan government rejected the criticism.

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The critical comments by the prosecutor, Atty. Gen. Luisa Ortega Diaz, took many here by surprise because she has long been considered a staunch ally of Maduro's government. But on Friday she told reporters in the capital of Caracas that the incendiary Supreme Court decisions "constitute a rupture of the constitutional order," adding: "We call for reflection so that democratic paths be taken, respecting differences."

What long-term effects her critique would have remained unclear, but her denunciation seemed to bolster the stance of government opponents.

On Wednesday, Venezuela's highest court ruled that legislation passed by the opposition-controlled National Assembly was "outside the law" and that the court had the right to assume congressional duties. The judgments set off an international firestorm.

The dispute quickly accelerated the political chaos that has battered Venezuela, an oil-rich South American nation that has been suffering from food shortages, triple-digit inflation and rampant street crime.

Maduro's socialist government has blamed its woes on interference from the United States, long a foe of Venezuela's socialist leadership, calling Caracas the victim of a U.S.-led "economic war." Maduro is the political protégé of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a long-time antagonist of Washington.

Domestic opponents have pushed for a recall election, labeling Maduro a would-be dictator who has jailed opposition leaders, deployed security forces against protesters and has shown no respect for the democratic process. But the government has resisted calls for a new election.

A new round of small protests hit the capital on early Friday, but larger demonstrations were expected later in the day and through the weekend.

"No to the dictatorship!" an opposition legislator, Miguel Pizarro, told journalists at a protest along a major highway. "Elections now! No one should surrender! … We have to demand our rights as we can — on the streets, protesting, without fear."

Soldiers in riot gear pushed back student protesters who approached the Supreme Court complex.

A woman protects herself from tear gas during protest in Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday. Several protests broke out after a Supreme Court ruling took power from congress raising fear of a dictatorship.
A woman protects herself from tear gas during protest in Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday. Several protests broke out after a Supreme Court ruling took power from congress raising fear of a dictatorship. (CRISTIAN HERNANDEZ / EPA)

Venezuela has experienced months of dueling protests, both by anti-government and pro-government activists.

But massive anti-government demonstrations have failed to bring about the opposition's goal of a referendum to recall Maduro, whose term in office does not end until 2019.

Venezuela's socialist leadership has rejected allegations that the court rulings represent a de facto coup, describing the magistrates' actions as an appropriate response to ongoing illegal efforts to oust Maduro's government. Even before the latest rulings, the high court had voided much of the work of the National Assembly, frustrating the anti-Maduro camp.

"It is false that a coup d'etat has occurred in Venezuela," declared the Venezuelan foreign ministry, which blamed the current controversy on "imperialist" meddling from Washington and its allies.

Amid international condemnation of the court rulings, Moscow issued a statement calling for outside governments to stay out of Venezuelan affairs.

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"External forces should not add fuel to the fire to the conflict inside Venezuela," the Russian statement said. "We are confident in the principle of non-interference in internal affairs."

This week's controversial court rulings here have drawn widespread criticism throughout Latin America and the world.

The head of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, has 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."

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.

Special correspondent Mogollon reported from Caracas and Staff Writer McDonnell from Mexico City. Contributing were staff writers Kate Linthicum in Mexico City and Tracy Wilkinson in Washington.

UPDATES:

12:05 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional background on Venezuela's political situation and a statement from the Russian government.

This article was originally published at 10:15 a.m.

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