Latin America & Caribbean

Venezuela court suspends three new opposition MPs

Venezuela's Supreme Court President Gladys Gutierrez (C) speaks during a meeting with members of the court and the newly named justices at the Supreme Court building in Caracas December 23, 2015. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Supreme Court led by President Gladys Gutierrez (C) ordered the immediate suspension of the lawmakers

Venezuela's Supreme Court has suspended the inauguration of three opposition MPs who were due to take office next week.

The move follows legal challenges by the governing socialist party of President Nicolas Maduro.

The suspension removes the opposition coalition's super-majority which gave it extensive powers to challenge President Maduro.

The opposition had called the challenge a "judicial coup".

The court approved injunctions against the election victories of three opposition MPs and one from the governing Socialist Party while it hears a legal challenge against them.

The court also agreed to hear legal challenges to the election of another six opposition deputies but dismissed requests for similar injunctions.

The court's website did not detail the arguments underlying the legal challenges by the governing Socialist Party.

As a result, four MPs are blocked from taking office when the new Congress opens on 5 January, while the other five will be allowed to take office while the court hears the legal challenge against them.

A two-thirds majority gives the opposition key powers it would not have with fewer seats.

Among them is the power to remove Supreme Court judges, appoint key officials such as an independent attorney general, and passing constitutional amendments subject to ratification by referendum.

'Dysfunctional democracy'

The secretary-general of the opposition MUD coalition, Jesus Torrealba, earlier condemned the challenges to the results.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Venezuelan opposition coalition general secretary Jesus Torrealba (C) condemned the legal challenges

"You can't use legal tricks to steal something the voters didn't want to give you," he said.

"We're not living in a functional democracy," he added.

In an open letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and senior international officials, he said: "The country, the region and the world are facing a judicial coup attempt against the Venezuelan people's decision as expressed at the ballot box.

"The ruling party's irresponsible behaviour is pushing the entire country to the brink of disaster, which would have grave consequences for the entire region."

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez defended the legal challenges, saying: "We also have to be careful and vigilant over the law. These legal challenges are revealing that there were concrete irregularities which could have altered the results of (the elections). We are using legal means and we have not called for violence."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption President Maduro said it was the opposition that was "playing dirty"

Even if the opposition were to lose the three seats, it will still hold a majority in the 167-seat National Assembly, which for the past 16 years has been dominated by the President Maduro's Socialist Party.

Outgoing National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello called a number of extraordinary sessions last week at which 13 new Supreme Court judges and 21 substitute judges were named.

President Maduro has convened a meeting of socialist supporters for January to set the course for the "Bolivarian revolution", which his party advocates.

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