Venezuelan opposition in showdown with high court

Maria Isabel Sanchez
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Lilian Tintori (C), wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, walks with supporters inside the Congress in Caracas on January 11, 2016

Lilian Tintori (C), wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, walks with supporters inside the Congress in Caracas on January 11, 2016 (AFP Photo/Juan Barreto)

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela headed into ever murkier political waters Monday as the Supreme Court declared the newly opposition-controlled legislature null and void and the opposition vowed to continue defying the judges.

The showdown between the legislative and judicial branches escalated a notch as the court invalidated all actions taken by the current National Assembly, which includes three opposition lawmakers judges had barred from taking office over an election dispute.

The decision declared the three lawmakers and the National Assembly's leadership in contempt of court and voided the legislature's decisions for as long as the trio hold their seats.

The opposition, which accuses the court of bias for President Nicolas Maduro, said it could not respect the ruling and would continue legislating with the two-thirds majority it insists it rightfully won in elections last month.

"All 112 (opposition) lawmakers are going to continue legislating. This sentence from the Supreme Court of Justice is impossible to respect. We lawmakers are protected by the constitution," said deputy speaker Simon Calzadilla.

Speaker Henry Ramos Allup said the court was "at the administration's service to override the people's will."

The number two figure in Maduro's camp, former speaker Diosdado Cabello, fired back that the legislature itself was in contempt of court.

"There's a (legislative power) vacuum coming, because if the Assembly is in contempt, no one is going to recognize it. We the people are not required to. The other branches of government are not required to," he said.

The court has emerged as a powerful player as reeling oil giant Venezuela embarks on a new era of divided government in the wake of the opposition's landslide win in legislative elections last month, which delivered a crushing blow to Maduro and the "revolution" launched by his late mentor Hugo Chavez in 1999.

The opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), accuses Maduro of packing the court with his allies.

A week before the 167-member legislature's new session, the court barred three opposition lawmakers from taking their seats, effectively scrapping MUD's powerful two-thirds majority.

Ramos Allup, the new speaker, defiantly swore them in anyway, setting up a messy political and legal battle.

- Judges under fire -

The opposition's disputed "super-majority" gives it the power to remove Supreme Court judges from the bench, as well as put legislation to a referendum and call an assembly to draft a new constitution.

The opposition has vowed to use those powers to force Maduro from office within six months.

The embattled president, whose term runs until 2019, has meanwhile vowed to fight the "bourgeois assembly" tooth and nail.

Just hours before the court ruling, MUD lawmakers had launched a legislative committee to probe alleged irregularities in the appointment of 13 judges to the 32-member Supreme Court.

Maduro's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) used an extraordinary session in the final hours of its legislative majority to push through the judges' appointment, a move the opposition condemned as undemocratic.

The court ruling came as MUD lawmakers introduced a bill on one of their top legislative initiatives, an amnesty for 75 jailed opposition figures they say are political prisoners.

The bill was tabled by Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was sentenced to 14 years in September on charges of inciting violence at anti-government protests -- a ruling that drew international condemnation.

Venezuelans exasperated with empty supermarket shelves, long lines, violent crime and a deep recession voted on December 6 to give the opposition control of the National Assembly for the first time since Chavez came to power 17 years ago.

Political analysts warn the country faces a period of brutal political turmoil.

With rumors of coup plots and counter-coup plots swirling, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino has vowed the military's "absolute loyalty" to Maduro.