Venezuela's chief prosecutor on Friday condemned the Supreme Court’s decision to shut down the country’s parliament – echoing concerns voiced around the world that the troubled country was sliding towards a dictatorship.
The Supreme Court, packed with supporters of President Nicolas Maduro, ruled that the National Assembly was “in contempt” of the country’s laws, and could no longer sit in session.
"This isn't any old sentence. It marks a point of no return on the road to dictatorship," said Freddy Guevara, deputy leader of parliament.
The National Assembly has been controlled by opponents to Mr Maduro since December 2015 and has fought to find legal measures to oust the embattled leader, who presides over a nation on its knees through crippling food shortages, soaring crime and triple-digit inflation.
On Wednesday those efforts were halted – the reason given being the assembly’s failure to sign off key economic policies, such as authorising Venezuela's state-run oil company to form joint ventures with private companies, including Russia's Rosneft.
"It's false there has been a coup d'etat in Venezuela," said Venezuela's foreign ministry. "On the contrary, institutions have adopted legal correctives to stop the deviant and coup-seeking actions of opposition parliamentarians openly in contempt of decisions by the republic's maximum tribunal."
Russia refused to condemn the Supreme Court’s move, which opponents of Mr Maduro likened to a coup.
"External forces should not add fuel to the fire to the conflict inside Venezuela," said the Russian foreign ministry in a statement. "We are confident in the principle of non-interference in internal affairs."
But the UN, US, EU and a swathe of Latin American nations voiced concern.
Sir Alan Duncan, minister for the Americas, said he was "shocked" at the "wrestling of power from the parliament".
Germany accused Mr Maduro of holding the country's population as "hostages" in his battle with parliament, with government spokesman Steffen Seibert on Friday urging the country to "return to democratic principles and the separation of powers."
"It is intolerable how President Maduro is making the population of his country hostages to his own power ambitions," he said.
And in Venezuela, Luisa Ortega, the chief prosecutor, and a previous key ally of the ruling Socialists, said the Supreme Court’s decision was a power grab.
"It constitutes a rupture of the constitutional order,” she said, in an unusual break from the government line. “It's my obligation to express my great concern to the country."
Protesters took to the streets on Friday, blocking motorways and chanting for Mr Maduro’s removal. But opposition supporters are also acutely aware that street tactics have failed on numerous occasions.
Vast rallies in 2002 helped briefly topple Hugo Chavez, but he was back about 36 hours later after his supporters poured onto the street and military factions came to his aid.
In 2014, hardline opposition activists led months of protests, but they turned violent and led to 43 deaths, their leader Leopoldo Lopez was jailed, and Mr Maduro consolidated power.
Then last year, hundreds of thousands marched at various times, but still authorities thwarted the opposition's push for a referendum to recall Mr Maduro and also postponed local elections.
The opposition is hoping the military - whose top ranks still pledge absolute loyalty to Mr Maduro though there is believed to be dissent lower down - may nudge him into bringing forward a presidential election due at the end of 2018. But there is no public sign of that happening.
"Given that the government controls all the state's institutions, including the armed forces, the security apparatus is likely to strongly repress protesters with opposition leaders facing higher detention risks," said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuelan analyst with the IHS Markit consultancy.
The opposition is also riven by dissent. Four separate, rival press conferences were held on Friday to condemn the Supreme Court’s move.