(AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Venezuela prosecutor moves on opposition leader

criminal probe launched into Juan Guaido

January 29, 2019 - 3:53 pm

By SCOTT SMITH ,  Associated Press


CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's chief prosecutor on Tuesday asked the country's top court to ban opposition leader Juan Guaido from leaving the country, launching a criminal probe into his anti-government activities while international pressure builds against President Nicolas Maduro.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab made his request to the government-stacked Supreme Court, and also asked it to block Guaido's financial accounts.

Saab didn't specify what crimes Guaido is being investigated for, but said the probe is tied to unrest sparked by his decision to declare himself interim president last week in a direct challenge to Maduro's authority.

Guaido said outside the National Assembly building that he's aware of personal risks, but added, "Venezuela is set on change, and the world is clearly conscious of what's happening."

"I don't underestimate the threat of persecution at the moment," he added, "but here we are."

While rights monitors say hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested in recent days, Guaido has so far avoided arrest while making regular public appearances in recent days. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton reiterated Tuesday that there will be "serious consequences" for anyone who attempts to harm Guaido, though he didn't specify what that response might be.

Opening a case against Guaido comes as international pressure mounts against Maduro's government from the United States, which earlier in the day handed control over Venezuela's U.S. bank accounts to Guaido. Russia announced it expects Venezuela to have problems paying its debts.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified that Guaido, the congressional leader who has declared himself interim president, has authority to take control of bank accounts that Venezuela's government has in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or any other U.S.-insured banks.

Pompeo said the certification will "help Venezuela's legitimate government safeguard those assets for the benefit of the Venezuelan people."

Guaido has been recognized as the nation's rightful leader by two dozen nations that contend the re-election of socialist President Nicolas Maduro was a sham, in part because his strongest opponents were barred from running.

He moved forward with building a transition government on Tuesday, naming nearly a dozen new diplomats to nations that have recognized him as interim president.

Violent street demonstrations erupted last week when Guaido during a massive opposition rally in Caracas declared that he had assumed presidential powers and planned to hold fresh elections, ending Maduro's "dictatorship."

The United States, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador and Paraguay have officially acknowledged Guaido as the legitimate interim head of Venezuela, while countries including Russia and China back Maduro.

Inside Venezuela, Maduro holds the reins of power with the armed forces still loyal despite an opposition push to lure their support by proposing amnesty for anybody who supports Guaido's transitional government.

On Tuesday, Maduro announced that he would beef up the nation's defense by expanding Venezuela's civilian armed militia to 2 million members amid escalating tensions with the U.S.

The reserve force was created by the late Hugo Chavez to train civilians to assist the armed forces and defend the socialist revolution from attacks. Maduro made the announcement dressed in an olive cap and shirt before rows of troops before overseeing a military training exercise.

The embattled leader is accusing the United States of leading an open coup to oust him and exploit Venezuela's oil reserves, the largest in the world. On Monday, the U.S. hit Venezuela's state-owned oil company with sanctions aimed at increasing pressure on Maduro to leave office.

"Once more we'll come out victorious," Maduro pledged. "We are on the right side of history."

The country faces a potentially devastating economic contraction as it stands to lose billions in export proceeds as a result of the sanctions over the next year.

Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak told Russian state news agencies Tuesday "there will probably be problems" for Venezuela in paying its debts.

Storchak said Venezuela owes Russia $3 billion, with repayments twice a year of around $100 million, with the next due in March. Russia also has extensive commercial interests in Venezuela, including state oil company Rosneft's partnership with Petroleos de Venezuela SA, which was placed under U.S. sanctions Monday.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin shares the view of the Venezuelan government that the sanctions are "illegal" and sees them as a tool of unfair competition on part of the United States.

The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, said that Americans shouldn't travel to Venezuela, warning of unrest, the threat of being arbitrarily arrested and of mass demonstrations occurring with little notice.

Opposition leaders have called for anti-government demonstrations this week.

The announcement raises the travel advisory to its highest level, putting Venezuela on a no-travel list that also includes Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and South Sudan.


All contents © copyright 2019 Associated Press. All rights reserved.