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As Maduro cracks down, Venezuela legislators see intimidation

CARACAS (Reuters) – A Venezuelan opposition legislator on Friday fled to Colombia while others said threatening messages had been spraypainted on their homes or intelligence agents had been following them, amid a broad crackdown by the government of President Nicolas Maduro against congress.

A woman holds a Venezuelan flag while participating in a candlelight vigil held for victims of recent violence in Caracas, Venezuela May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The country’s top court this week accused 10 legislators in the opposition-run congress of treason for participating in a failed April uprising against Maduro’s government, and security forces on Wednesday arrested the second-highest ranking legislator, Edgar Zambrano.

Further arrests could cripple the functioning of the legislature, which has been a crucial part of the opposition’s strategy to unseat Maduro amid a hyperinflationary economic collapse that has fueled an exodus of millions of citizens.

Luis Florido, one of the lawmakers accused of treason, said in a social media that he left for neighboring Colombia to avoid possible for arrest.

“I consulted with many of my friends before leaving the country, and they all told me I should not let them catch me, that I should not give a trophy to the regime,” Florido said.

Earlier, lawmaker Maria Martinez posted a photo on social networks of a graffiti message she said was painted on her house on Thursday night that read “We’re going after the deputy.”

The message was signed with the word “colectivos,” which in Venezuela refers to armed pro-government gangs that opposition activists accuse of leading intimidation campaigns against Maduro’s critics.

Five other legislators said similar messages had been painted on their homes or the homes of family members.

Three legislators said intelligence vehicles were circling their homes or homes of their family members.

The information ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Opposition leader and congress chief Juan Guaido, who assumed the interim presidency in January after calling Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud, on April 30 called on the armed forces to rise up against the government. The military never joined and the uprising fell apart.

Two legislators this week took refuge in the Italian embassy. Those denouncing intimidation on Friday were not among those accused of treason by the Supreme Court.

Zambrano, who was taken to the headquarters of the Sebin intelligence agency in a tow truck on Wednesday, has been transferred to a jail at the Fuerte Tiuna military base in Caracas, according to a statement by the court in charge of Zambrano’s trial.

Some 17 deputies are already either in hiding in embassies or in prison, according to opposition leaders. If another 15 deputies are detained or leave the country to avoid persecution, the opposition may not have enough deputies to hold sessions.

The ruling Socialist Party has since 2016 refused to recognize decisions made the opposition Congress.

But such congressional decisions are recognized by foreign governments, and have been crucial for managing offshore assets such as U.S. refining subsidiary Citgo and for making payments on bonds issued by state oil company PDVSA.

Reporting by Corina Pons and Mayela Armas; Editing by Alistair Bell

via Reuters