CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said on Wednesday that intelligence agents had detained his deputy, the first arrest of a lawmaker since Guaido tried to spark a military uprising last week to bring down President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country’s rightful interim ruler, arrives on stage to deliver a speech during a meeting with workers of Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela, May 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Edgar Zambrano, vice president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which Guaido heads, said on Twitter that agents from the SEBIN intelligence agency were using a tow truck to drag his vehicle, with him inside, to one of their Caracas bases.
On Tuesday, Venezuela’s pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly agreed to strip Zambrano, and six other lawmakers, of their parliamentary immunity to allow their future prosecution.
The Supreme Court had earlier accused the lawmakers of conspiracy, rebellion and treason, and on Wednesday accused three other opposition legislators of the same crimes. The opposition says Maduro has stacked the court with his own supporters and does not recognize its legitimacy, while the U.S. government this week threatened to sanction all its members.
An attempted uprising last week led by Guaido, recognized as the rightful head of state by the United States and other Western countries, failed to dislodge Maduro, as have a series of U.S. sanctions against his government. Maduro decried the events as an attempted coup.
“One of the principal conspirators of the coup has just been arrested,” Diosdado Cabello, head of the Constituent Assembly, said in comments broadcast on state television. “They will have to pay before the courts for the failed coup that they attempted,” he said.
Zambrano said on Twitter that SEBIN agents had surrounded his vehicle by the headquarters of his Democratic Action party in Caracas’ La Florida district.
“We were surprised by the SEBIN, and after refusing to let us leave our vehicle, they used a tow truck to forcibly transfer us directly to the (SEBIN headquarters) Helicoide,” he said. It was not yet clear if Zambrano was already at the Helicoide.
“The regime has kidnapped the first vice president,” Guaido said on Twitter.
Guaido in January invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, denouncing Maduro as illegitimate after he secured re-election last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent. Maduro has overseen the collapse of Venezuela’s economy, which has shrunk by half over the past five years, forcing over 3 million Venezuelans to emigrate.
The Constituent Assembly removed Guaido’s parliamentary immunity in early April, but authorities have not tried to arrest him since then though Maduro has said he will “face justice.” The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened Maduro’s government with a harsh response should it ever detain Guaido.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Supreme Court’s head, Maikel Moreno, rebuffed the U.S. government’s threats to sanction his court’s members if they did not reject Maduro’s government and Guaido.
The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions in 2017 on Moreno and the seven principal members of the court’s constitutional chamber for rulings that “usurped the authority” of the National Assembly.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday the Trump administration would soon sanction the 25 remaining members of the court. Pence said on Tuesday that the United States was lifting economic sanctions on a former Venezuelan general who turned against Maduro in order to encourage other Maduro allies to follow suit.
The head of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, said: “We demand the SEBIN stop the intimidation, respect the lawmakers’ parliamentary immunities, and immediately released Edgar Zambrano.”
Reporting by Angus Berwick and Mayela Armas; Editing by Peter Cooney, Rosalba O’Brien and Lisa Shumaker