By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) – The rule of law has crumbled in Venezuela under the government of President Nicolas Maduro which has usurped the powers of the legislative and judicial branches, an international legal watchdog said on Monday.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) called on Venezuelan authorities to reinstate democratic institutions as part of a solution to the political, economic and humanitarian crisis engulfing the OPEC member.
The government and a compliant Supreme Court effectively stripped the National Assembly of most powers after the opposition won a majority in 2015 elections.
Lawmakers loyal to Maduro generally do not attend the sessions but go to meetings of the Constituent Assembly, a legislative body that meets in the same building.
The Constituent Assembly, created in a 2017 election boycotted by the opposition, is controlled by the ruling Socialist Party and its powers supersede the National Assembly.
Sam Zarifi, ICJ secretary-general, presented its latest report on Venezuela: “No Room for Debate”.
“The focus of this report is on the usurpation of the authority of the legislative by the government in Venezuela. This comes after the judiciary was taken over,” he told a news briefing.
“It seems quite clear that in response to the loss of direct support in the legislative assembly, the government decided to completely trample on the principle of the rule of law really and separation of powers,” he said.
The Constituent Assembly was “formed improperly and illegitimately” and has gone far beyond its stated role, Zarifi said, adding: “In fact it seemed to do everything but really discuss a new Constitution”.
Rafael Chavero Gazdik, a professor of constitutional law at Universidad Central de Venezuela, said that the new body had not produced any work on a new draft charter.
“Basically it is a body that is helping the President to do whatever he wants without the rule of law,” he said.
“After two years we have not seen in Venezuela a single draft of any article for a new Constitution – not a single one.”
After their parliamentary immunity was stripped, four lawmakers of the National Assembly are in jail and another 22 have fled Venezuela, Chavero said.
Venezuela’s opposition will meet with representatives of Maduro’s government in Barbados for talks mediated by Norway, the parties involved said on Sunday, as part of efforts to resolve the political crisis.
Opposition leader Juan Guaido, recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader by more than 50 governments, invoked the constitution in January to assume a rival presidency.
“Addressing the problem of the National Constituent Assembly is a crucial step in any political solution to the crisis that has gripped Venezuela,” ICJ’s Zarifi said, urging the government to engage with the opposition-led legislature.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)