Embattled but determined, President Maduro prepares to proceed with his constituent assembly which can rewrite the constitution, even as the detention of popular opposition figures elicits criticism and threats of more sanctions.

A man holds a sign with a portrait of opposition leader Antonio Ledezma in front of a wall with a portrait of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez in Caracas, Venezuela. The sign reads, "The bars will not shut the truth".  August 1, 2017.
A man holds a sign with a portrait of opposition leader Antonio Ledezma in front of a wall with a portrait of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez in Caracas, Venezuela. The sign reads, "The bars will not shut the truth". August 1, 2017.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro continued to face criticism – both domestic and international – as he jailed two leading critics of the government on Tuesday. In a sign of worsening tensions, two judges have also fled the country.

The arrests were widely seen as an attempt to squash dissent to ensure Maduro's new constituent assembly can become functional as soon as possible. The new super body voted in on Sunday amid deadly protests will have absolute powers to strengthen the hand of the leftist government and to rewrite the Constitution.

Venezuela's opposition leader Henrique Capriles hit out at Maduro for the jailing of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and veteran politician Antonio Ledezma – a fresh blow to the opposition after Sunday's election.

In a statement announcing the jailing of Lopez and Ledezma, the pro-government Supreme Court said they were planning to flee the country and had violated terms of their house arrest by making political statements and speaking to media.

But Capriles denounced the government's version of events, saying that Venezuelans were not so gullible to believe it to be true.

In a statement, UN human rights chief Zeid Raad al Hussein called for the release of two prominent opposition leaders, who were arrested in raids at their homes. Venezuela must release peaceful protesters and allow an independent investigation into the deaths of at least 10 people in protests at the weekend, Hussein said.

"The United States holds Maduro – who publicly announced just hours earlier that he would move against his political opposition – personally responsible for the health and safety of Mr Lopez, Mr Ledezma, and any others seized," Trump said, according to a statement issued by the White House.

US Senator Ben Cardin, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Monday's sanctions against the Venezuelan leader were not enough, and that punitive economic measures targeting the country's vital oil sector may be in order.

The US is Venezuela's number one crude importer. Actions targeting Venezuelan oil would likely heap more damage onto an economy already suffering from a deep recession, food shortages and the world's highest inflation rate.

"We express our solidarity with Leopoldo Lopez, Antonio Ledezma and other political prisoners in Venezuela," Mexico's Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said on Twitter.

Brazil, Costa Rica and Panama joined the condemnation of Lopez and Ledezma's arrest.

Judges under threat

Two judges appointed by Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly have taken refuge in the residence of the Chilean ambassador in Caracas.

Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz tweeted Tuesday that Beatriz Ruiz and Jose Fernando Nunez arrived "in search of protection" and said they have been offered asylum if they want it.

Ruiz and Nunez were among 33 judges sworn in on July 21 by the National Assembly in defiance of Venezuela's government-stacked Supreme Court.

The country's highest court quickly declared the appointments unconstitutional and said the judges would be illegally usurping power and betraying the nation if they tried to take their new posts.

The pair joins another Venezuelan judge who took refuge in the Chilean residence in Caracas.

At least three judges appointed by the National Assembly have been detained.

Arresting to prevent protests?

Blamed by many for an unprecedented economic crisis and rising levels of poverty in Venezuela, Maduro has faced almost daily protests for months, demanding freedom for jailed politicians, humanitarian aid to combat food and medicine shortages, and early elections to replace him.

Maduro accuses the opposition of continuing to seek a coup against him and says the constituent assembly will bring peace back to the volatile nation. The legislative superbody will also have the power to dissolve the opposition-led congress, eliminating any institutional check on Maduro's powers.

Officials say more than 40 percent of Venezuela's 20 million voters cast ballots on Sunday for Maduro's new superbody.

The opposition says turnout was closer to 12 percent – on a par with the population of state employees, who were under major pressure to vote.

According to polling firm Datanalisis, more than 70 percent of Venezuelans oppose the new assembly.

An arrest foretold

Lopez himself suspected he would be detained again, and had recorded a video alongside his wife Lilian Tintori in which he urged Venezuelans to keep fighting if he was put back behind bars.

"If you're seeing this video it's precisely because that's what happened, they jailed me again, illegally and unjustly," said Lopez, in the video sent to his 5 million Twitter followers on Tuesday.

Lopez confirmed in the video that his wife, Lilian Tintori's pregnancy was "another reason to fight for Venezuela" and added it was "the best news he had received in the last three and a half years."

The video was recorded on July 17 in case Lopez was arrested again and taken from his home.

Who are Lopez and Ledezma?

Lopez is a 46-year-old Harvard educated economist who believes in the necessity of street action.

He became one of the icons of the anti-Chavista movement (named after those opposed to the country's late leader Hugo Chavez) following his arrest in February 2014 when he was sentenced to 13 years in prison on charges of inciting violence during protests that led to 43 deaths.

After 3.5 years behind bars, he was sent to serve the remainder of his sentence at home on July 8 on medical grounds.

The mayor of Caracas, Ledezma is also a lawyer who was arrested and jailed in February 2015 after being accused of conspiring against the president and associating with criminals.

The 62 year old was sent home in April to serve the remainder of his sentence under house arrest following surgery.

Ledezma is a veteran of the social democrat Democratic Action party, the country's most powerful political force until Chavez came to power in 1999.

Elected mayor of the capital in 2009 and re-elected in 2013, he was brutally arrested in 2015 in his offices by several dozen armed intelligence agents wearing balaclavas and bullet-proof vests.

Lopez and Ledezma had called for protests against Sunday's vote. Both men were taken from their homes to Ramo Verde, a military jail in a slum area about an hour's drive from the capital, according to lawyers and family.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies