By Deisy Buitrago and Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s pro-government Supreme Court heard a petition on Tuesday to remove dissident state prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who was expecting the ax after alleging rights abuses and erosion of democracy under President Nicolas Maduro.
Ortega, the main challenger to Maduro from within the ruling socialist movement during three months of opposition protests, said she would not recognize legal proceedings against her by an “unconstitutional and illegitimate” Supreme Court.
The internal fissure has emboldened anti-Maduro protesters, who have been staging near-daily demonstrations since April to demand early elections amid a devastating economic crisis that has millions struggling to eat properly.
“We already know they’re going to remove me today,” said Ortega in a speech at her office, slamming what she said was a “spurious” case designed to silence her.
“They’ve frozen my bank account, they’ve frozen my assets, and they’ve banned me from leaving the country. It appears that defending the constitution constitutes a crime,” she said, waving a small blue book of the charter written under Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, the late Hugo Chavez, in 1999.
The Supreme Court said, however, that it would issue a decision within five days on the charge brought by socialist lawmaker Pedro Carreno of “grave offense” against Ortega.
Officials have leveled a plethora of accusations against the a 59-year-old lawyer, from “insanity” and encouraging “terrorists” to misusing a confiscated plane.
“She has attacked the democratic institutions of the country,” Carreno told the Supreme Court hearing.
In recent weeks, Ortega has accused security forces of excessive violence, opposed pro-Maduro decisions by the Supreme Court and National Election Council, and said the president’s plan for a new congress threatens democracy.
Speaking at her office in Caracas to applauding staff, Ortega said the case against her was rife with procedural errors and signs of collusion between the Supreme Court and the ruling party. She wryly remarked that the case was being handled with unusual speediness by Venezuela’s infamously slow legal system.
Earlier on Tuesday, the court’s constitutional chamber said her designation of a vice prosecutor was “absolutely null” and instead named its own vice prosecutor.
The court’s appointee, Katherine Haringhton, was one of seven officials sanctioned by the United States in 2015 for alleged corruption and rights abuses.
Ortega condemned the parallel appointment as illegitimate. And in a swipe at first lady Cilia Flores, Ortega also mentioned the “narco-nephews” in her speech, an allusion to two relatives of Maduro’s wife found guilty in the United States of trying to carry out a multimillion-dollar drug deal.
Protesters across the oil-rich South American nation of 30 million set up road blockades “against the dictatorship” on Tuesday afternoon. Some played dominoes and football in the streets, while others chanted slogans, waved banners saying “No More Dictatorship” and stood under the sun.
The opposition wants to ramp up pressure ahead of Maduro’s planned vote on July 30 to elect members of a new, controversial legislative superbody with powers to rewrite the constitution.
Maduro, a 54-year-old former union leader, says the assembly is the only way to bring peace to Venezuela after the deaths of 90 people in and around anti-government unrest since April.
His opponents counter it is a ruse designed to avoid free and fair elections the Socialist Party would lose, and possibly consolidate one-party rule in the mold of communist ally Cuba.
Warning that Venezuela is approaching “zero hour,” lawmakers on Monday announced that the opposition would hold its own referendum on July 16 to let Venezuelans have their say on Maduro’s plan and their alternative push for an election to replace him.
“I’m blocking the road for a better future. We’re doing this to stop the Constituent (Assembly) election,” said lawyer Ritza Quintero, 32, protesting with a banner. “Even if we don’t stop it, we’re not going to recognize it.”
Opposition protesters also want solutions to the crushing economic crisis, freedom for hundreds of jailed activists, and independence for the opposition-led National Assembly.
Maduro, a former foreign minister who was narrowly elected in 2013 after Chavez’s death from cancer, says protesting opponents are seeking a coup with U.S. support.
“Many are seeking … little ‘Rambos’ in the armed forces, but you’re not going to find them,” Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said in a video published on Monday, alluding to speculation of a military coup.
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Silene Ramirez, Andreina Aponte and Andrew Cawthorne; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Jonathan Oatis)