Venezuela Assembly’s ‘Truth Commission’ Is Ready to Hound Opponents

  • The body ‘can try anyone,’ Maduro says; amnesty is unmentioned
  • Judges and politicians are fleeing to exile and embassies

Venezuela Inches Closer to Dictatorship

A Venezuelan assembly rewriting the nation’s constitution is intensifying a campaign of persecution that already has sent opposition politicians into hiding, exile and prison.

President Nicolas Maduro said the constituent assembly, which on Tuesday declared itself the nation’s supreme political authority, will strip legal immunity from the national assembly that has opposed him. Members of the so-called constituyente plan to establish a truth commission that will function more as a tribunal than a venue that offers amnesty in return for healing testimony.

“The truth commission can try anyone," Maduro, 54, said this week.

The government, isolated and under threat of U.S. economic sanctions, has quickly deployed the constituent assembly against the last strongholds of dissent in public institutions and to weaken the opposition-led congress. The Justice and Truth Commission may become its main tool. In countries such as South Africa and Rwanda, such panels have allowed perpetrators of violence to confess their crimes in return for amnesty. The idea was to establish a baseline of truth and extinguish deadly political passions. In Venezuela, forgiveness so far is not on offer.

“It’s the truth of only one sector,” said Carlos Berrizbeitia, an opposition lawmaker. “Surely they will use this to continue to persecute and threaten.”

Sharpened Tool

The newly empowered commission has existed in other forms for several years. After the failure of talks with the opposition last year, the government established a commission in the executive branch to investigate violence in the wake of a 2002 coup attempt. In May, Maduro widened its powers to probe political attacks in 2017, most of them aimed at his regime. Now, the commission will operate under the aegis of the new constituyente with its untrammeled powers.

Lawmaker Diosdado Cabello, center, attends a pro-government rally in Caracas.

Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg

Diosdado Cabello, a political strongman, member of the constituyente and supporter of Maduro, said this week that the truth commission would be an instrument to advance the regime’s goals.

“We’re asking of the Justice and Truth Commission that anyone who has acted against the fatherland be stripped of public duties,” he said.

Tulio Alvarez, a constitutional law professor and chairman of the Central University of Venezuela’s law school, said the body is a truth commission only in name.

“The truth is the definition of events such as they occurred -- not manipulating them,” he said. “This commission is designed for the opposite goal. It’s to say, hiding the truth.”

“It sets on fire any possibility of an encounter between Venezuelans”

Cabello said the body planned to examine the immunity granted to lawmakers.

“There are many things to review in the National Constituent Assembly, the coexistence of powers, impunity,” he said. “We must investigate those who have been calling for violence and now want to run for governors as if it’s no big deal.”

The consituyente on Tuesday passed a decree saying that the national assembly and supreme court couldn’t contradict its decisions.

“We are not running over anyone,” Aristobulo Isturiz,  vice president of the constituyente, said in a radio interview. “We are looking for rules of coexistence.”

Silenced, Imprisoned

The moves extend Maduro’s long-running campaign against his opponents in a variety of arenas. The day after the July 30 ballot that elected the assembly, Maduro jailed two prominent opposition leaders, both later released. It has ousted the nation’s chief prosecutor, who had opposed Maduro, and replaced her with a supporter.

On Monday, The Supreme Court ordered the imprisonment of the mayor of a Caracas district that’s a hotbed of dissent, and another is to appear before the panel Wednesday.

“They are condemning us for doing our jobs, guaranteeing the legitimate right to protest peaceful," said Ramon Muchacho, the jailed mayor of the Chacao district, which has been an epicenter of anti-government demonstrations over the past four months.

Muchacho is the fourth opposition mayor, from urban centers along the Caribbean coast to the Andes and agricultural heartland, to be removed since late July and sentenced to prison. In each case, Venezuela’s top court faulted the mayors for not following orders to clear blockades in major roadways. One mayor has fled to the U.S. Another says he won’t recognize the sentence and appears to be at large.

The Venezuelan chapter of Transparency international says that 39 of 77 opposition mayors have been threatened or punished by the government since 2013, with some removed and jailed, some having their powers curtailed and some barred from leaving the country.

Jurists Flee

The government has also moved against judges named by the national assembly in defiance of Maduro’s effort to dominate the courts. Three have been arrested, according to the national assembly. Five sought asylum in Chile’s embassy in Caracas along with a party leader, the nation’s foreign minister said. Two others are in the Panamanian embassy and about a dozen others have fled to the U.S. and Colombia.

“We are in Colombia because of the persecution that President Nicolas Maduro ordered,” magistrate Pedro Troconis said in an interview on Blu Radio in Bogota.

— With assistance by Matthew Bristow

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