CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela jailed two leading critics of President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday in a fresh blow to the opposition after the election of a new political body with absolute powers to strengthen the hand of the leftist government.
The United States imposed sanctions on Maduro on Monday, calling him a “dictator” for Sunday’s election of a constituent assembly that the opposition boycotted and denounced as illegitimate.
In a statement announcing the jailing of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and veteran politician Antonio 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 government opponents called the abrupt removal of the men from their homes by security forces in nighttime raids a sign of Maduro’s determination to silence rivals and stamp out four months of massive street protests against him.
About 120 people have been killed in the unrest, including at least 10 during Sunday’s vote.
Both Lopez and Ledezma had been urging protests against Sunday’s vote, which they charged was rigged and a naked power grab by Maduro.
In addition to rewriting the constitution and superseding other institutions, the constituent assembly will have the power to dissolve the opposition-led congress, eliminating any formal political challenge to Maduro.
Lopez had been held more than three years in a military jail until last month, when he was unexpectedly released in what was seen as a potential breakthrough in the country’s long-running political standoff.
Attempts to get the opposition and the government to reach a negotiated deal subsequently floundered, however, and allies said Lopez, 46, may have been jailed again because he rejected government proposals.
“They have kidnapped Leopoldo Lopez because he simply would not break under the pressures and false promises of the regime,” said Freddy Guevara, a legislator in the Popular Will party led by Lopez.
A U.S.-educated economist and former mayor in Caracas, Lopez is beloved by some in the opposition for his hardline anti-government stance and has become an international cause celebre.
The government sees him as an elitist coup-monger, and even some…