Venezuelan authorities arrested two key opposition leaders at their Caracas homes early Tuesday, making good on a threat by President Nicolas Maduro to crack down on his critics following an election last weekend that has been widely condemned as a prelude to dictatorship.
Leopoldo Lopez, the leader of the Popular Will opposition party, was taken to the Ramo Verde military prison, his lawyer said in a radio interview.
“Maduro is responsible if anything happens,” Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, said over social media.
Antonio Ledezma, the former mayor of metropolitan Caracas, was also taken into custody. He had appeared in a video Monday criticizing the election: “It’s important that we say that Venezuela will not give up.”
The vote Sunday — to elect a Maduro-friendly assembly charged with drafting a new constitution — was opposed by a majority of Venezuelans and denounced by the U.S. and other nations as the most significant step yet toward the end of Venezuelan democracy.
Much of Caracas on Tuesday had the tense air of incipient civil war. Protesters dressed in helmets, gas masks and carrying full body shields have sealed off many neighborhood streets with barricades made of trash, bricks and abandoned vehicles. The ongoing battles with police and national guard members have forced motorists to create new traffic patterns to avoid violent flashpoints.
Lines at supermarkets were longer than usual as shoppers stocked up on rationed food items and household goods to hedge against social and commercial paralysis that escalated conflict could bring.
All the candidates for the constitutional assembly were Maduro loyalists. The winners could convene as early as Wednesday night to start drafting a new charter, a process that could take six months.
Any new constitution is expected to increase the power of the president and diminish that of the National Assembly — where the opposition currently has a majority — and possibly replace it with the delegates of the new body.
It is also likely to change the rules for choosing the attorney general, taking that power away from the legislature and handing it to the president. The current attorney general, Luisa Ortega Diaz, has been the only high-ranking public official to criticize Maduro, lambasting him for packing the Supreme Court with 13 loyalist judges and for forming the new constitutional assembly.
The new constitution could also limit individual civil rights protections as Maduro has warned it will allow him to go after dissenters and do away with immunity from prosecution currently afforded to members of congress.
In a speech late Sunday celebrating the election, Maduro warned he would take harsh measures against opposition leaders and some news media, including jail terms.
The arrests of Lopez, 46, and Ledezma, 62, were quickly condemned by foreign leaders and human rights advocates, including Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and the Carter Center, which issued a statement that called the arrests “deplorable” and said they lay “grounds for serious violations of human rights.”
In 2015, Lopez, a former Caracas borough mayor, was sentenced to 13 years in prison on an incitement-to-violence charge related to protests the previous year that left 43 dead. He denied the charges, saying his arrest was politically motivated.
His imprisonment became an international cause celebre with many human rights organizations demanding his release. Lopez was granted house arrest July 8 after spending more than three years in jail. His release had been negotiated by former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
The release was seen as a gesture by the government to ease tensions amid widespread protests that since late March have left 120 dead and thousands injured. Police and the national guard have arrested more than 5,000 in clashes that have engulfed much of the nation.
Ledezma was charged in February 2015 with plotting to overthrow Maduro’s government, which he denied. Ledezma had been allowed to serve his term at home since April 2015 for health reasons.
The Supreme Court issued a statement Tuesday saying both were retaken into custody by officers of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, or SEBIN, for “noncompliance” with the terms of their house arrests. Ledezma’s family released video showing Ledezma still dressed in pajamas being hustled out of his apartment and into his building’s elevator.
“SEBIN took my father Antonio Ledezma prisoner for speaking the truth to the government,” the former mayor’s son Victor said in a social media message.
Attorneys for both politicians said the arrests Tuesday were uncalled for as neither man was a flight risk. Lopez’s attorney, Juan Carlos Gutierrez, noted that six SEBIN officers have stood guard outside Lopez’s residence since he was granted house arrest last month.
On Monday, the Trump administration sanctioned Maduro, freezing his assets in the U.S. And at a White House news conference, national security advisor H.R. McMaster said Maduro is “now a dictator.”
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called for “the full and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Venezuela, free and fair elections, restoration of the National Assembly, and respect for human rights in Venezuela.”
The U.S. State Department on Tuesday condemned the arrest of the two opposition leaders. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the development was “alarming” and he seemed to suggest the administration would like to see Maduro removed from power.
“This could lead to an outbreak of further violence in the country; the situation from a humanitarian standpoint is already becoming dire,” Tillerson said. “We are evaluating all of our policy options as to what can we do to create a change of conditions where either Maduro decides he doesn’t have a future, and wants to leave of his own accord, or we can return the government processes back to their constitution.”
Until now, the administration has limited its actions against the Venezuelan government to a string of economic sanctions imposed on Maduro and members of his government, and has called for Venezuela to return to democracy. Maduro has long accused the United States of attempting to overthrow his government but without providing proof.
Venezuelans have been protesting across the country since late March when the Maduro-controlled Supreme Court issued a ruling removing legislative powers from the National Assembly and transferring them to Maduro. Although the ruling was partially rescinded, violent clashes have continued.
Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota, Colombia respectively.
7:20 p.m.: This article was updated to include scenes from Caracas and background on the vote Sunday.
2:30 p.m.: This article was updated to include comments from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
9:30 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times reporting.
3:15 a.m.: This article was updated to include background information.
This article was originally published at 1:15 a.m.