CARACAS — The government of President Nicolás Maduro is intensifying its crackdown on opponents, raising fears of a broader campaign to silence and punish dissent.
Maduro loyalists issued a new arrest warrant for one prominent legislator and vowed to remove his immunity from prosecution in a case that could become a model for targeting other critics. A proposed measure that could imprison opponents for up to 25 years, observers say, could soon make that task easier.
“In its zeal to consolidate authoritarian rule, the government is hardening its course and is now clearly unwilling to tolerate those who advocate a different direction,” said Eric Farnsworth, a former U.S. diplomat who is now vice president of the Council of the Americas, a business group.
The pro-government supreme court issued an arrest warrant late Wednesday for German Ferrer, a national legislator and husband of Luisa Ortega Díaz, whose criticism of the government led to her ouster earlier this month from her job as chief prosecutor.
The move came after senior members of the new, all-powerful Constituent Assembly — created last month in a vote that critics decried as a Maduro power grab — accused Ferrer of engaging in criminal extortion. The body’s members, all of whom back the government, were poised to vote on a measure to lift Ferrer’s immunity from prosecution.
Members of the opposition-dominated National Assembly — which has been divested of power and pushed aside — still receive the legal immunity of their office. But Maduro and members of the Constituent Assembly have vowed to strip many of them of legal protections to face charges for alleged incitement and other crimes.
Should Ferrer’s immunity be lifted, a move observers say is imminent, it would mark the first salvo in that effort. Opposition leaders decried the move as the start of a witch hunt against top government critics.
“We are alerting the international community of persecution against members of the National Assembly,” the body said in a statement tweeted by its president, Julio Borges.
The move is one of several signs of a larger political crackdown looming in this South American nation already hit hard by hyperinflation and economic collapse.
More than 100 Venezuelans have died and thousands have been detained in four months of anti-government street protests. Since the Constituent Assembly was installed, five mayors have been removed with arrest warrants.
But the assembly is now poised to vote on a far-reaching new measure, proposed by Maduro, that could punish government critics with up to 25 years in prison.
“It’s time to overcome campaigns of hate, intolerance, violence and persecution,” Maduro said last week in introducing the legislation, according to official government reports.
On Wednesday, the Constituent Assembly’s new “truth commission” was officially installed, and immediately announced it would investigate Borges and Freddy Guevara, the National Assembly’s vice president.
Lately, much of the government’s wrath has been directed toward former friends. Ortega and Ferrer, for instance, were longtime backers of Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013 after anointing Maduro as his successor.
But both turned against Maduro earlier this year. One of the first of acts of the Constituent Assembly was to remove Ortega — who had denounced the government’s human rights abuses and corruption — from her post as chief prosecutor.
Overnight, authorities raided Ortega and Ferrer’s home. Hours before, Diosdado Cabello, a top member of Maduro’s inner circle, accused Ferrer of heading an operation that used his wife’s former post to extort $6 million from business executives and detainees.
In images broadcast on national television, Maduro’s new chief prosecutor, Tarek William Saab, held up what he claimed was one of six “original documents” that proved Ferrer had opened dollar accounts in Bahamian banks for the purposes of extortion.
“If you zoom in with the cameras, you can see the signature,” he said.
Ferrer denied the charges in a statement, saying the documents were forged.
“Like every neo-fascist regime, this government doesn’t have any parameter for shame,” he said.
Faiola reported from Miami.