, Caracas, Venezuela, Jul 4 – Venezuela’s chief prosecutor refused to appear in court Tuesday in a case she says was trumped up by the authorities after she defied them over the country’s deadly political crisis.
Luisa Ortega faced imminent suspension after her move cranked up the tension in a standoff with President Nicolas Maduro, who is resisting fierce opposition calls to quit.
Ortega, 59, is the most senior figure to defy Maduro as he fends off efforts to remove him from power in the volatile oil-exporting nation.
“I am not going condone a circus that will stain our history with shame and pain and whose decision is foretold,” Ortega told a news conference at the public prosecution department.
“I have committed no crime nor errors and I am not going to submit to this unconstitutional and illegitimate court,” she added. “We already know that today I will be removed from my post.”
Ortega’s stand has raised the prospect of a split in the government camp that could tip the balance in a deadly power struggle. Three months of unrest have left 91 people dead, prosecutors say.
The latest fatality was that of a 25 year old man killed Tuesday during a street protest in the western city of Tariba, prosecutors said.
Anti-government protesters blocked streets in Caracas and elsewhere. Opposition leaders said that in Caracas, armed pro-government groups beat and shot at demonstrators.
Protesters blame Maduro, a socialist, for a desperate economic crisis. He says the chaos is the result of a US-backed conspiracy.
– ‘Insanity’ –
Ortega launched a legal challenge against the government on human rights grounds, and a case against Supreme Court judges.
She accuses Maduro of violating the constitution through his reform plans.
Pro-government lawmaker Pedro Carreno responded by filing charges against Ortega, alleging “serious errors in the carrying out of her functions.”
He also alleged she was suffering from “insanity” and should be fired.
Last week, the Supreme Court ordered Ortega’s assets to be frozen and banned her from leaving the country.
The court held its hearing Tuesday in her absence and said afterward it would decide within five days whether to send her to trial and suspend her from office.
“She sold her soul to the devil,” Carreno said in the hearing. “She had her price and became a traitor just like Judas.”
The court earlier named a new deputy chief prosecutor to replace Ortega if she is fired: government ally Katherine Harrington.
Harrington was targeted by US sanctions in 2015 for alleged human rights breaches in jailing opposition leaders.
– Veteran ‘Chavista’ –
Ortega backed the “Chavista” socialist movement launched by Maduro’s late predecessor Hugo Chavez.
But she broke ranks with the current president in March.
She accused the Supreme Court of undermining democracy through a short-lived ruling that seized power from the opposition-led legislature. The opposition says the court is packed with Maduro’s allies.
That court ruling was one of the moves that sparked the current wave of protests.
As violence swelled, Ortega renewed her criticism of the authorities, accusing police of killing protesters. She enraged Maduro, who branded her a traitor.
– ‘Tipping point?’ –
Maduro retains the public support of army chief Vladimir Padrino Lopez — a key factor for him to stay in power.
But the president last month said he was replacing four other senior commanders of the armed forces.
Maduro has infuriated his opponents by launching a plan to form an assembly to rewrite the constitution.
Opponents say he will pack the “constituent assembly” with allies to cling to power.
Voting for members of the assembly is scheduled for July 30. The opposition on Monday said it would hold a popular vote against that on July 16.
“The next major flashpoint will be the election on 30 July of delegates to the Constituent Assembly,” analysts from the Eurasia Group consultancy said last week in a note.
“However, the political crisis is so fluid that the country could reach a tipping point before then.”