CARACAS (Reuters) - From his refuge at the Chilean ambassador’s home, Venezuela’s deputy congressional leader has defended “civil disobedience” against President Nicolas Maduro and urged demoralized opponents to unite and oust him in a presidential vote.
“All the focus of our struggle now is to have truly free presidential elections,” opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara said in a video released overnight after he entered the Chilean diplomatic residence at the weekend.
Venezuela is due to hold a presidential vote in 2018. But foes of Maduro are demanding that the pro-government election board first be reformed, charging the election will be rigged if it is not.
Saying he should be tried for violence, authorities have revoked Guevara’s parliamentary immunity and banned the 31-year-old leader of hardline Popular Will party from traveling.
Guevara, who is vice president of the opposition-led National Assembly, was at the forefront of anti-Maduro street demonstrations between April and July in which at least 125 people died and thousands were injured.
Opponents say Maduro’s leftist government has run oil-rich Venezuela’s economy into the ground and resorted to increasingly authoritarian tactics to retain power.
“The usurpers of the Supreme Court and State Prosecutor’s Office accuse me of crimes I have not committed but based on events I do recognize,” Guevara said in the video released via social media.
“Yes, I called protests and believe in civil disobedience. I organized them and will do it again. Never will they convince me, those who were in the street, nor the international community, that we are guilty when you murdered us.”
Chief prosecutor Tarek Saab, who recently replaced a dissident prosecutor, presented the case against Guevara to the pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly superbody, which has sidelined congress, in a session late on Monday.
Saab blamed Guevara for the shooting, stoning and stabbing of security officials, paying adolescents to protest, and exhorting violence during the protests this year.
“He didn’t care who died,” Saab said.
The U.S. State Department weighed in on the Guevara case on Tuesday, saying in a statement the government’s moves against him were “yet another extreme measure to close the democratic space in Venezuela, criminalize dissent and control information.”
Maduro, 54, has long had his sights on Guevara, nicknaming him “Chucky” in reference to a horror film’s murderous doll.
Popular Will founder Leopoldo Lopez is under house arrest, for his role in protests in 2014, and the party is under constant threat of being banned as officials accuse it of terrorism.
“Mr. Nicolas Maduro, sadly for you, we have taken the decision not to give you any more hostages,” Guevara added in his video, explaining his decision to take refuge rather than face trial like Lopez did.
Earlier this year the Chilean ambassador’s opulent residence in the Country Club zone of Caracas took in five pro-opposition magistrates threatened with jail time.
They eventually crossed the border secretly to Colombia before flying to Santiago to be received by President Michelle Bachelet’s government, which has joined a chorus of major Latin American nations in denouncing Maduro for rights abuses.
Critics say Maduro has turned the country into a dictatorship by twisting elections and detaining opponents.
His supporters say Maduro, who inherited the socialist course of his predecessor the late Hugo Chavez, is resisting a U.S.-backed push for a coup, and insist Venezuela’s election process is sound.
In another overnight development, a local journalist missing since Saturday turned up at dawn wearing only his underwear on a motorway outside Caracas, he and authorities said.
Jesus Medina, who works for the DolarToday currency and political website that virulently opposes Maduro, said he was kidnapped, tortured and threatened before being released.
“To inform is not a crime,” Medina said in a video, showing injuries on his face. He declined to give more details of the alleged kidnapping, including the identity of his captors, because the incident was under investigation.
The state prosecutor’s office opened an investigation.
Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Deisy Buitrago in Caracas, Makini Brice in Washington; Editing by Brian Ellsworth, Jeffrey Benkoe and Frances Kerry