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Venezuela's Supreme Court Orders Travel Ban, Asset Freeze Against Attorney General

Caracas, June 30, 2017 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuela's Supreme Court ordered a travel ban and asset freeze against Attorney General Luisa Ortega Wednesday over allegations that she has overstepped her constitutional powers.

Issued by the Plenary Chamber of the Supreme Court (TSJ), the travel ban and asset freezes were described in a court statement as “precautionary measures” ahead of a hearing on allegations of "grave misconduct in the exercise of her office", for which she could face possible impeachment. During the hearing, the court will decide whether Ortega could face criminal charges related to a long running dispute with the court.

Meanwhile, in a controversial decision, the TSJ constitutional tribunal has ruled that the National Ombudsman's office has constitutional authority to investigate and prosecute criminal offenses, which was formerly the monopoly of the Public Prosecution (MP).

National Ombudsman Tarek William Saab said his office will also continue to review human rights abuses, while also exercising its new powers without "conflicting with the attorney general".

“The ombudsman’s office will have the ability to investigate ex officio, or at the request of a party that issues a complaint," he said.

In a separate ruling, the constitutional tribunal also declared Ortega's appointment of her Vice-Attorney General Rafael Gonzalez Arias "null and void", stating that the designation was not approved by the National Assembly as required by Article 25 of the Organic Law of the Public Prosecution. However, the opposition-held National Assembly currently stands in contempt of court over its refusal to unseat three legislators accused of voter fraud, so the appointment had to be approved by the TSJ. Appointed in April following the resignation of his predecessor over alleged disagreements with Ortega, Arias has been accused of overseeing politicized firings of Chavistas within the MP. 

Ortega, for her part, has refused to recognize the high court rulings, which she blasted as a politicized attempt to defang her office. 

“It is a process of progressive dismantling of the attorney general’s office,” she said. 

She also warned that the TSJ's decisions would lead to impunity in the face of government "repression" of protests, which she excoriated as "state terrorism". 

"I think we have state terrorism in which the right of protest is lost, in which protests are cruelly repressed," she declared on Wednesday.

The comment came one day after a helicopter terrorist attack on the Supreme Court by a rogue police officer, which coincided with another wave of nationwide violent unrest that claimed seven lives in 48 hours. 

The misconduct allegations and TSJ rulings are the latest saga in long running dispute between the attorney general and the high court, which has intensified the country's deep political crisis. 

Earlier this month, Ortega called for the removal of the TSJ's 33 justices approved by the outgoing Chavista National Assembly in December 2015, echoing a longstanding opposition demand. The top prosecutor has likewise demanded that six of the judges and two substitutes be put on trial for “conspiracy against the order of the republic”. 

Most recently, Ortega's office has taken aim at Saab, reopening a 2008 corruption investigation into the top human rights official's tenure as governor of Anzoategui state. The move was announced after Saab released documents showing that, contrary to her public claims, the attorney general had indeed signed off on the December 2015 appointment of the Supreme Court's 30 justices. 

Ortega's conduct in recent months has also come under scrutiny, and she has been accused of failing to prosecute violent opposition groups. Of the more than 2000 people indicted in connection to protests and political violence, roughly 300 have faced jail time. She has also been accused of illegally appointing her vice attorney general.

Among her critics is former attorney general Isaias Rodriguez, who has accused Ortega of often failing to prosecute violent protesters.

“The current attorney general is dismantling the attorney general’s office,” he told state broadcaster VTV.

"I feel that in Venezuela there is no attorney general’s office; there is an attorney general and a tradition of an institution, but it does not really exist because simply the person who is in charge of this institution does not respond to the institutional and rules that govern this institution,” he said.

Ortega's hearing will take place on July 4.

Published on Jun 30th 2017 at 11.42am