Venezuela opposition targets judges over 'coup'

Alexander MARTINEZ
Venezuelan opposition deputy Henry Ramos Allup (bottom) delivers a speech during the discussion on Supreme Court judges removal process, at the National Assembly in Caracas on April 5, 2017

Venezuelan opposition lawmakers launched efforts Wednesday to fire judges whom they accuse of mounting a judicial "coup" to keep socialist President Nicolas Maduro in power.

It was the latest maneuver in a political crisis that is raising concerns for democracy and stability in the volatile major oil exporter.

But the deputies' effort looked unlikely to prosper since the decision to remove the judges depends on other state institutions loyal to the government.

The center-right opposition accused the judges of attempting a "coup d'etat" last week.

The court had issued rulings transferring the assembly's legislative powers to the court and revoking lawmakers' immunity from prosecution.

The judges later reversed the rulings after an international outcry.

Opposition lawmakers on Wednesday debated a motion to call for the judges' removal.

"They have carried out an ongoing internal coup," senior opposition deputy Henry Ramos Allup told the assembly.

"We have to escape from it by civil protests, exercising our constitutional functions and not giving in to a failed, outlaw government."

- Clinging to power -

Despite revoking last week's judgments, the judges kept in force a series of other rulings that restrict the assembly's powers.

The Supreme Court has consistently overruled the National Assembly legislature since the opposition majority took its seats there in January 2016.

Maduro is resisting opposition efforts to hold a vote on removing him from power.

The opposition blames him for Venezuela's economic crisis, while he blames a capitalist conspiracy.

The collapse in energy prices has sapped the country's revenues, prompting shortages of food, medicine and basic goods along with a surge in violent crime.

- Protesters, police clash -

Elsewhere, protesters and riot cops clashed with students demonstrating against the court rulings, AFP reporters witnessed.

The clashes broke out Wednesday in the western city of San Cristobal, scene of deadly riots and looting last year.

The director of the local UNET university told reporters that 21 people were injured in Wednesday's clashes.

Scores of others were hurt Tuesday in similar unrest during a protest in Caracas, opposition groups said.

The opposition has called for further demonstrations in the capital on Thursday.

- Concern in Europe -

Last week's rulings drew cries of concern from the United States and Europe as well as from Latin American powers.

On Wednesday the European Parliament in Strasbourg held a debate on the situation in Venezuela.

Deputies from the European People's Party, a center-right alliance, called for a tougher line on Maduro.

They demanded he release political prisoners and ensure humanitarian aid to those suffering in the crisis.

In an address to the parliament, the European Union's Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova reiterated the bloc's call for timely elections in Venezuela and respect for the assembly's role.

Centrist bloc ALDE suggested imposing "selective sanctions" on Maduro.

- Latin America worried -

The Organization of American States on Tuesday issued a resolution denouncing the court's moves as gravely unconstitutional.

OAS head Luis Almagro has been pressing for the group's members to suspend Venezuela.

Maduro's Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez hit back at a meeting of the OAS council Wednesday, rejecting the declaration as a "fraud."

"Get your hands off Venezuela once and for all," she told Almagro.

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