Top Venezuelan opposition leaders taken into custody amid fears of wider crackdowns

Masked security forces carried out predawn raids Tuesday and hauled away two top Venezuelan opposition leaders, suggesting an expanded crackdown on dissent after widely denounced elections aimed at boosting the authoritarian government.

The moves against Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, who were already under house arrest, could intensify the international fallout after Sunday’s election, which created a new super congress stocked with backers of the government of President Nicolás Maduro.

The vote for the Constituent Assembly was decried as fraud-ridden by the opposition and prompted the Trump administration on Monday to slap sanctions on Maduro. A blitz of videos related to the arrests emerged, adding a cinematic quality to a turn of events that opponents decried as the actions of a fast-cementing dictatorship. 

 In one video posted online by Ledezma’s wife, security forces apparently drag the opposition leader between the glass doors of a building. A man cries “Help!” before another voice shouts, “They’re taking Ledezma!”

A woman screams, “Dictatorship! Dictatorship!” as Ledezma, 62, is carried into the darkness by troops from the intelligence services in camouflage.

Both men were taken to Ramo Verde military prison southwest of Caracas, aides and family members said. The heavily guarded hilltop complex is a notorious detention center for political and military prisoners. 

In Washington, the White House on Tuesday denounced the arrests and Maduro’s “outrageous seizure of power through sham elections.” Incoming press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “The United States condemns the actions of the Maduro dictatorship, and we hold Maduro personally responsible for the health and safety of both men and any others seized by his dictatorship.”

After the election results were announced Sunday, Maduro gave a bellicose victory speech on national television that included threats to jail political leaders who were encouraging protests. Maduro, the anointed successor of leftist president Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, also said that a “truth commission” would be created to “take parliamentary immunity from the legislators who shouldn’t have it.”

The newly minted legislators from Sunday’s vote, including Maduro’s wife and son, are set to take over the National Assembly building from lawmakers of the opposition-dominated body on Thursday.

The outgoing lawmakers held a defiant session Tuesday, condemning the election as a “farce” and claiming that the government invented millions of votes. Opposition politicians also denounced the raids early Tuesday while vowing to continue their resistance.

“Imprisonments and persecution of the leadership will not stop the rebellion,” tweeted Freddy Guevara, vice president of the National Assembly and a member of López’s party.

Placards depicting Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López during a rally against President Nicolás Maduro’s government in Caracas on July 9. (Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters)

Already near-worthless, the local currency — the bolivar — continued to collapse, with its black-market rate against the dollar falling nearly 10 percent overnight. Government channels, meanwhile, showed images of people celebrating the results of Sunday’s vote, along with TV advertisements denouncing opposition violence.

The pro-government election commission said the names of at least 364 of the 545 new Constituent Assembly members have been transmitted to Maduro. But the government also suffered defections. Three leftist legislators in the opposition-led National Assembly publicly broke with the government’s legislative bloc.

“We’re socialists and believe in Bolivarian ideals,” said Eustoquio Contreras, one of the dissenting legislators, using the term reserved for Chávez’s ideology. “Our difference is in the way of confronting the crisis.”

On Tuesday, the sole government critic on the country’s election commission, Luis Rondon, also issued his strongest statement yet breaking with the body’s official stance validating Sunday’s vote.

“I can’t guarantee the veracity of the results,” he said.

At a news conference, he said the commission had not published voting tallies from each polling station.

“The controls in our electoral system were, for the most part, relaxed, and in some parts, even eliminated,” he said. He added, “I can’t have confidence in the figures. What happened last Sunday is very serious. It violates our electoral controls.”

 In a sign of the socialist government’s growing isolation, ambassadors from Britain, France, Spain and Mexico went to the National Assembly on Tuesday to support the opposition lawmakers. “We diplomats are here to show support,” said France’s ambassador, Romain Nadal. “The Venezuelan people want peace, democracy and its institutions, and we are here to help.”

In a statement, the pro-government Supreme Court said it revoked López’s and Ledezma’s house arrest after “verifying” violations of the terms of detention. It said intelligence officials had uncovered alleged escape plots of both men. The court also said the conditions of the house arrest prohibited political activity or declarations.

Authorities last month released López, 46, after nearly 3½   years behind bars and placed him under house arrest. At the time, the government called the decision a humanitarian gesture, citing his poor health, though supporters saw the move as an attempt to reduce international pressure. 

In a video posted on Twitter by Lilian Tintori, López’s wife, masked security forces in riot gear can be seen in front of what appears to be the family’s house, leading a man through the door and putting him in an official car shortly after midnight. 

“Maduro is responsible if something happens,” Tintori tweeted.

Venezuela’s most prominent political prisoner and former mayor of a district in Caracas, López was arrested in early 2014 and handed a 13-year jail term after being convicted of inciting violence during a street protest. He became a symbol of resistance for opponents of the government, his portrait printed in bright colors on the T-shirts and flags of protesters who chanted, “Free Leopoldo!”

At the time of his release, López, who was forbidden to speak to the media, issued a statement saying he was ready to return to prison to “fight for freedom.”

López’s family also tweeted a prerecorded video of the opposition leader that was made for release in the event he was seized.

Sitting with his wife on a couch in their home, he called on the nation to continue the fight. And he announced that his wife is pregnant with their third child.

“Despite knowing the risks we’re putting our family in, we’re willing to advance and continue.” he said.

In an interview, Ledezma’s wife, Mitzy Capriles de Ledezma, said a Twitter video that her husband posted Monday may have been one reason he was hauled away.

In the video, Ledezma, 62, with a Venezuelan flag in the background, called the just-elected Constituent Assembly a fraud and assailed the armed forces and Supreme Court. Ledezma also critiqued the opposition for its lack of strategy.

“One more time Nicolás Maduro shows off his dictator-like qualities,” Capriles de Ledezma said Tuesday. She said the move smacked of desperation: “The fact that Antonio is again in prison means Maduro knows he’s on his way out.”

Ledezma’s daughter, Oriette Ledezma, issued a video statement saying her father was “kidnapped” by Maduro’s forces in a predawn raid.

“He was in his pajamas,” she said. “A group of masked men in camouflage took him. . . . We make the regime responsible for his life and physical integrity.”

Antonio Ledezma was previously arrested in December 2015. Maduro at the time said he was part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. In May of that year, he was remanded to house arrest after undergoing surgery for a hernia.

In 2013, Ledezma, from the Alianza Bravo Pueblo party, was reelected mayor of Caracas. In January 2017, Maduro created a higher executive post in the city, “chief of the greater state of Caracas,” and named a pro-government official to the job.

Rachelle Krygier and Mariana Zuñiga contributed to this report.