Caracas: Gunmen killed a judge involved in the sentencing of Venezuela’s best-known jailed political leader Leopoldo Lopez in the latest fatality of two months of anti-government unrest that has killed at least 62 people, authorities said on Thursday.
And in a blistering attack on President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government, the chief state prosecutor said his plan to create a new congress threatened to “eliminate” democracy.
The judge, 37-year-old Nelson Moncada was shot and stripped of his belongings as he tried to get away from a street barricade on Wednesday night in Caracas’ El Paraiso district, the scene of regular clashes, the prosecutor’s office said.
This week has seen widespread violence around the Venezuelan capital, with security forces repeatedly breaking up marches by opposition supporters towards government offices downtown, and skirmishes continuing into the night. Protesters frequently block roads with trash and burning tires, sometimes asking passers-by for contributions toward a self-styled “Resistance” movement against Maduro.
The government said Moncada was one of the judges who ratified Lopez’s 14-year jail sentence, and suggested that might have motivated his killing.
“We cannot exclude the possibility this was done by hitmen hired by right-wing terrorists to keep creating and spreading terror,” Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said, referring to Venezuela’s opposition.
Victims from two months of unrest have included supporters on both sides, bystanders and members of the security forces.
Maduro pledged on Thursday to hold a referendum on a new constitution he has proposed to try and quell the unrest. Opponents and some within his own government say the plan to create a new super-body, known as a constituent assembly, to rewrite the national charter was anti-democratic.
Chief state prosecutor Luisa Ortega has said creating the assembly without a plebiscite, as happened in 1999 when Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez rewrote the constitution, threatened to “eliminate” democracy in Venezuela.
Maduro said on state television: “I shall propose it explicitly: the new constitution will go to a consultative referendum so it is the people who say whether they are in agreement or not with the new, strengthened constitution.”
Venezuela’s opposition is demanding new elections to replace the unpopular socialist president whom foes accuse of wrecking the OPEC nation’s economy and of becoming a dictator.
Maduro, 54, calls them coup-mongers seeking his violent overthrow with US support akin to the short-lived ouster of his predecessor Hugo Chavez in 2002.
“It seems that participative and protagonistic democracy, which cost Venezuelans so much [to get], is being eliminated,” said Ortega, who has broken with Maduro.
She was speaking on the steps of the pro-government Supreme Court, criticising its ruling this week endorsing Maduro’s plan to go ahead with the assembly without a referendum.
“This sentence is a backward step for human rights … popular participation has been reduced to a minimum,” she added, before quoting a speech by Chavez at his 1999 inauguration where he lauds “popular sovereignty” over institutions.
Venezuela’s Supreme Court ordered opposition leader Henrique Capriles on Thursday to avoid roadblocks in the Miranda state that he governs, or face jail.
Miranda includes part of the capital Caracas, and the volatile towns of San Antonio de Los Altos and Los Teques, where anti-government street barricades have been common.
The 44-year-old lawyer narrowly lost a 2013 vote to Maduro after Chavez’s death from cancer, and has been at the forefront of this year’s protests, calling for civil disobedience.
Authorities have already barred Capriles from running for new political posts for 15 years, on allegations of “administrative irregularities” that he denies, potentially hobbling another bid to run in 2018 when the next presidential vote is due.