Venezuelan Attorney General Skips Court Hearing, Alleges “Coup”

The standoff between Venezuela’s branches of government further escalated Tuesday as the Supreme Court held an impeachment hearing for Attorney General Luisa Ortega over allegations of “grave misconduct”. 

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The Supreme Court will issue its decision within the next five days. (@TSJ_Venezuela)
The Supreme Court will issue its decision within the next five days. (@TSJ_Venezuela)
By Lucas Koerner
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Caracas, July 4, 2017 (venezuelanalysis.com) – The standoff between Venezuela’s branches of government further escalated Tuesday as the Supreme Court held an impeachment hearing for Attorney General Luisa Ortega over allegations of “grave misconduct”. 

The session was presided over by Supreme Court (TSJ) President Maikel Moreno and included the plaintiff in the case, United Socialist Party of Venezuela legislator Pedro Carreño, as well as National Ombudsman Tarek William Saab, and Comptroller General Manuel Galindo. Ortega was summoned to the hearing but declined to attend and was represented by Public Defender Javier Hernandez. 

Carreño accused the top prosecutor of having lied when she affirmed that she had not participated in the selection process for the 33 TSJ justices approved by the outgoing Chavista National Assembly in 2015. 

Last month, Ortega filed a motion for the judges’ removal on the grounds that she allegedly never signed off on their appointment, echoing a longstanding opposition demand.

Carreño cited evidence provided by Saab that Ortega had indeed participated in the selection process and moreover vowed to bring in a graphologist to authenticate the attorney general’s signature on the documents. 

The lawmaker also alleged that Ortega had “violated the fundamental principles established in the constitution by undertaking acts of political, trade union, or party activism.” 

In particular, he pointed to a case in which the top prosecutor had reportedly received in her office a group of district attorneys who yelled, “This government is going to fall.” 

Lastly, Carreño censured Ortega for failing to issue a public statement regarding a range of violent attacks carried out by the right-wing opposition, including the torching of food distribution centers, hate crimes such as burning people alive, as well as last week’s helicopter terrorist attack on the Supreme Court and Justice Ministry.

During his testimony, Saab, who is also president of the Moral Republican Council (CMR) that presides over the citizens’ branch of government, affirmed that during the December 16, 2015 meeting to choose the TSJ judges, Ortega did not cast any contrary votes, which he said “would have been a media event”.

Moreover, the national ombudsman confirmed that while Ortega’s signature is absent on the minutes of the December 16 meeting, she was indeed present at the subsequent CMR session on January 21, 2016, in which the members of the council unanimously approved the proceedings of the previous meeting, certifying its “unequivocally legal character”.

Saab also noted that the attorney general was present at the inauguration of the new justices in January 2016, thereby endorsing their legitimacy.

“In fact she also attended the inauguration of the judicial year in 2017,” he added. 

The CMR president underscored that premeditated lying constitutes an act of “grave misconduct” under the Organic Law of Citizens’ Power, recommending that Ortega, himself, and the comptroller general be subject to a polygraph test to “determine who has been shamelessly lying”.

For his part, Comptroller General Manuel Galindo responded to Ortega’s public statement that the justices’ appointment is illegitimate since her signature is missing from the minutes of the December 16 meeting. He reported that the attorney general had left the meeting early at 8:30 pm, pledging to subsequently sign off on the proceedings, which never took place. 

Galindo called for misconduct charges to be brought against the former CMR executive secretary, Maria Jose Marcano, for neglecting her responsibility to secure the missing signature. 

Marcano, who resides outside of Venezuela, alleged last month in a radio interview that the TSJ selection process was “illegal”, pointing to the absence of her's and Ortega’s signature from the December 16 proceedings. The ex-secretary did, however, confirm that Ortega signed the minutes of the January 21 meeting, validating the decisions of the prior session.

Galindo also requested that Ortega, Saab, Marcano, and himself undergo a cross-examination, in order to give the attorney general the opportunity to present her version of events face to face.

The hearing concluded with an announcement by the TSJ Plenary Chamber that it will release a decision on the case within five days. 

Ortega responds: “This is a coup”

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Ortega called the impeachment hearing against her a “coup”, lambasting the nation’s highest court as “unconstitutional and illegitimate”. 

“This is a coup more grotesque than the Carmona decree,” she declared, referring to the short-lived April 2002 coup headed by Chamber of Commerce President Pedro Carmona, which saw the kidnapping of President Hugo Chavez for 47 hours, the derogation of the constitution, and the dissolution all other branches of government. 

The top prosecutor likewise reiterated her claim that the December 16, 2015 meeting to select the new TSJ justices never happened, pointing to her lack of signature as alleged evidence. She moreover dismissed as “irrelevant” Saab’s assertion that in participating in the subsequent January 21 meeting she validated the proceedings of the prior session.

Ortega additionally announced that she refused to recognize the new vice-attorney general, Katherine Harrington, sworn in by the high court on Tuesday.

Last week, the TSJ declared “null and void” Ortega’s pick for the number two prosecutorial post, Rafael Gonzalez Arias, on the grounds that the designation was made without the approval of the high court. 

On Monday, Ortega went to the opposition-controlled National Assembly to secure the body’s confirmation of her appointment. However, the legislature currently stands in contempt of court over its refusal to unseat three deputies accused of vote buying, and as such, the appointment had to be confirmed by the Supreme Court. 

Harrington was one of dozens of Venezuelan officials sanctioned by the Obama administration in late 2014 and early 2015 over alleged human rights violations. At the time, the attorney general expressed her “solidarity” with Harrington.

“The powerful ones in the north don’t want Katherine to work,” Ortega said on March 10, 2015, referring to Harrington’s role as a district attorney involved in prosecuting those involved in the previous round of violent opposition protests in 2014. Ortega was herself sanctioned by Washington in February 2015, which she vowed to hire a US attorney to fight. 

During the past three months of anti-government demonstrations, Ortega has herself been repeatedly accused of being soft on opposition militants accused of violent crimes.

In May, she revealed that of 2664 people indicted for crimes such as homicide, looting, grievous bodily arm, robbery, and arson, “only 284 have been jailed”.

Comptroller general orders audit of Public Prosecution

The high court hearing was preceded Monday by an announcement by Comptroller General Manuel Galindo that his office would be auditing the Public Prosecution (MP). 

Under the terms of the audit, the internal regulating body will examine the administrative, budgetary, and financial records of the Attorney General’s office during the period extending from January 1, 2008 to June 30, 2017, which corresponds to Ortega’s time in office.

On Galindo’s orders, the regional comptroller offices will be granted the full authority of the comptroller general to investigate the MP’s administrative practices in each state.

Ortega, for her part, said her office would cooperate with the audit, though she condemned as an “abuse” the manner in which comptroller officials allegedly attempted to enter MP offices nationwide on Monday.

TSJ strikes down indictment of ex-National Guard chief

In another episode of the heightening confrontation between the attorney general and the Supreme Court, the high court struck down an indictment issued by the MP against former National Guard head Jose Benavides Torres. 

Last week, the Public Prosecution charged Benavides with “grave and systematic human rights violations”, accusing police and military personnel under his command of responsibility for 23 deaths and 853 injuries in the course of three months of violent anti-government unrest.

However on Monday, the TSJ annulled the indictment on the grounds that Benavides, who was recently tapped to head the Capital District Government, is immune from criminal prosecution and must first be subject to an impeachment proceeding.

The nation’s highest court also ruled that the decision would apply to “anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation”, presumably referring to National Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) Director Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez, who was likewise indicted for human rights abuses last week.

According to data compiled by Venezuelanalysis, over 99 people have been killed since April 4, including at least 13 deaths at the hands of state security forces and 26 attributable to opposition political violence. 

To date, the MP has secured indictments in all but one of those cases of killings by authorities.