Venezuelan authorities seized opposition leaders Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma from their homes early Tuesday, the country’s Supreme Court said, after both publicly opposed a controversial election that critics say will let President Nicolás Maduro illegitimately consolidate power.
Both men had been under house arrest for prior convictions. The house arrests were revoked, the court said, because intelligence officials claimed they were planning to flee.
Families of the two distributed separate videos purportedly showing armed men removing the politicians from their homes in the night
Video posted online by Lopez’s family shows him being driven away in a car with markings of Venezuela’s intelligence service SEBIN.
A different kind of video was posted to the Twitter account of Lopez’s wife, one that appears to be a prescient statement about what would happen to him.
In the 6 1/2-minute video reportedly recorded July 17, Lopez sits by his wife and says those who detained him in 2014 could potentially send him back to prison.
“If you are watching this video, then this is precisely what happened, because they came and they unjustly took me as prisoner,” he says.
Lopez urges his supporters to continue to work for political change.
“It is worth fighting for Venezuela. Let us not falter in our fight. Let us not give up,” he says, adding that he has more motivation because his wife is pregnant.
In another video, a man apparently pulls Ledezma, a former Caracas mayor, out a door.
“He was in pajamas,” Ledezma’s daughter, Oriette, said in a video statement. “They have kidnapped him once again. We hold the regime responsible for his life and physical integrity.”
The detentions come after Venezuelans, in a Sunday vote called for by Maduro and boycotted by the opposition, elected members of a new legislative body. Virtually all of the new body’s members are supporters of the leftist leader.
The vote triggered outcry from the international community, prompting new sanctions, as well as those inside the country who have called it a sham.
The new body — called the Constituent Assembly — will have the power to rewrite the Venezuelan Constitution, which Maduro desires, and is expected to replace the previous legislative body, where the opposition has a majority. The new body will establish a “truth commission” to prosecute political opponents, one of Maduro’s top officials said.
Critics say they fear the moves will erase any last traces of democracy in the country. The election came after months of sometimes deadly anti-regime protests and an economic crisis that led many to leave Venezuela in search of easier access to food and medicine.
Luis E. Rondón, one of five directors of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, voiced reservations at a news conference about the validity of Sunday’s vote.
Normal electoral controls had been relaxed and in some cases eliminated in Sunday’s poll, he said. Rondón is the sole director of the electoral council who isn’t a supporter of Maduro.
Who are Lopez and Ledezma?
The Supreme Court said that Lopez and Ledezma had been prohibited from carrying out political actions during their house arrests and that the latter had been forbidden from making declarations to any media.
Both had made public statements in recent days against Sunday’s vote.
Lopez, a former mayor of a Caracas district, was put under house arrest last month, having served the previous couple of years in prison.
Long a vocal opponent of the socialists in power, Lopez was detained in 2014 after at least three people were killed during an anti-government protest in the capital — violence that authorities blamed on him. His detention was a rallying cry for anti-regime demonstrators.
Lopez was sentenced in 2015 to nearly 14 years in prison, but he was released to house arrest in July.
In a 15-minute video posted online last week, Lopez urged Venezuelans to keep up anti-regime protests. He called Maduro and his supporters a “very clear threat,” saying their goal is to undermine democracy and achieve the “absolute submission of the Venezuelan people.”
He was rounded up early Tuesday, his wife, Lilian Tintori, said on social media. Tintori posted video that she says shows her husband being taken away.
“They just took Leopoldo from the house. … Maduro is responsible if something happens to him,” Tintori tweeted.
Lopez, a descendent of South American liberator Simon Bólívar and Venezuela’s first president, Cristóbal Mendoza, was banned in 2008 from running for office on accusations of corruption. An international human rights court cleared him in 2011, but the Supreme Court upheld the ban.
Ledezma, known throughout Venezuela for his vocal opposition, was elected Caracas mayor in 2008. He was arrested in February 2015 after Maduro accused him of involvement in a plot to overthrow the government.
In a video posted online Monday, Ledezma said Sunday’s vote “was fraud, plain and simple.”
“We know that our public institutions have become instruments of a totalitarian regime, of a tyranny, which decided to continue damaging and destroying our rights,” Ledezma said.
His wife, Mitzy Capriles, said her husband was taken to the Ramo Verde Prison. Speaking Tuesday from Madrid, Spain, Capriles said she is “deeply anguished” by her husband’s detention and said his attorneys won’t be able to speak to him until later Tuesday night.
CNN is unable to confirm the location of either opposition figure.
Attorney general: ‘The end of freedom of expression’
Venezuela’s attorney general lambasted the election.
“This is the end of freedom of expression, and this freedom has been battered for some time now,” Attorney General Luisa Ortega said.
For months, Venezuela has struggled with two interconnected crises: a collapsing economy and a standoff between Maduro and the opposition.
In December 2015, opposition politicians won a majority of seats in the National Assembly. It seemed like a potential turning point — the assembly could vote to impeach Maduro, who had verbally clashed with the opposition since he came to power in 2013.
But before lawmakers were sworn into office, Maduro stacked the Supreme Court with his supporters to block any impeachment attempts.
The Supreme Court briefly attempted to dissolve the National Assembly in March, sparking a wave of nearly daily protests. More than 120 people have been killed in the ongoing unrest.
The US Treasury Department slapped sanctions on Maduro following the vote, calling the election illegitimate and saying that Maduro was disregarding the will of his people. All of the President’s assets subject to US jurisdiction were to be frozen. All US citizens are barred from dealing with him, according to the department.
In a nonbinding referendum organized by the opposition in mid-July, an overwhelming majority of voters rejected the planned constituent assembly. About 7 million Venezuelans voted in that referendum — 37% of the electorate.
But Maduro’s government called the referendum illegal.
Venezuela’s national election committee said more than 8 million people cast votes Sunday. The opposition disputes that, and says the number that voted in the July 16 referendum was higher.