Venezuela takes 2 political prisoners into custody

Venezuelan state security agents barged into the homes of two political prisoners under house arrest in the middle of the night Tuesday and took them into custody, the first retaliation President Nicolás Maduro against his opponents following a violence-marred vote widely seen as fraudulent.

Leopoldo López, the South American country’s most high-profile political prisoner, and former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma were taken after midnight, according to videos posted online by López’s wife and Ledezma’s family, days after they both publicly denounced Sunday’s vote for an all-powerful constituent assembly.

“They’ve just taken Leopoldo from the house,” López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, wrote on Twitter, holding Maduro responsible for anything that might happen to her husband. “We don’t know where he is or where they’re taking him.”

“They’re taking Ledezma!” a woman screams at her neighbors in a video showing a man who appears to be Ledezma clad in blue pajamas. “It’s a dictatorship!”

Maduro’s government detained López three years ago amid massive student-led opposition protests. He was sentenced to more than a decade in prison but released to house arrest last month. Ledezma was detained in 2015 and has also been under house arrest.

In a defiant televised address Monday night, Maduro warned the new assembly, packed with members of his ruling socialist party, would target the opposition and assorted other political enemies he accused of conspiring against his government with “Emperor Donald Trump.”

“Go ahead,” Maduro taunted. “Bring on your sanctions, Donald Trump.”

Hours earlier, the U.S. had sanctioned Maduro for undermining democracy, treating him as it has Bashar Assad of Syria, Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. The White House called Maduro a “dictator.”

Escalating sanctions are expected, though the Trump administration has yet to follow through with promised economic penalties, including placing potential financial limits on Venezuela’s all-important oil industry.

Maduro’s government claimed more than 8 million people voted in Sunday’s election, a figure disputed by opposition leaders and independent analysts who estimated turnout was less than half that. Most streets and polling places appeared deserted Sunday. Venezuela disallowed independent international monitors at the polls, and the election was condemned by the international community. Maduro bragged about congratulations he’d received from Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Russia.

Maduro has threatened the new constituent assembly will dissolve the democratically elected and opposition-held parliament, prosecute opposition lawmakers, dismiss chief federal prosecutor Luisa Ortega and bar opposition candidates from running in an upcoming gubernatorial election. The Trump administration has cautioned it may sanction all 545 constituent assembly members — including Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, and powerful socialist congressman Diosdado Cabello — once they are seated in the next couple of days.

Opposition leaders organized a post-election vigil Monday and have plans for further protests. But some demonstrators struggled to hide their weary disappointment in the wake of the questionable results.

“In 120 days of peaceful protest against the regime, they’ve never let us reached the places where we’ve wanted to go,” lamented 45-year-old Wilman Asuaje. “I’m a little disillusioned by the results, but we’re not defeated. We knew this was what was going to happen. Not even Chávez at his peak got that many votes, when people could still buy houses, when there was still food.”

In a speech from Washington that aired on an independent Venezuelan news channel not long before López and Ledezma were taken into custody, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio blamed Maduro for periodic food shortages that have left Venezuelans hungry.

“There is no U.S. economic blocked on Venezuela. Yet the economy of a rich nation is in shambles, because the Maduro government has given away your oil and much of your sovereignty to Cuba,” said Rubio, a Florida Republican leading the push for sanctions. “For Nicolás Maduro, who I am sure is watching, the current path you are on will not end well for you.”

Rubio brought Tintori, López’s wife, to the Oval Office to meet Trump in February. Vice President Mike Pence said he spoke to López by phone Friday, after López had posted an online video urging Venezuelans to boycott Sunday’s constituent assembly vote and remain in the streets protesting. The terms of his house arrest prohibited him from speaking to reporters.

During Sunday’s election, the outside of López’s home was guarded by an unusually large contingent of SUVs and agents armed with rifles from the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service, known as SEBIN.

Mazzei reported from Miami.

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