Venezuela reverses ruling to strip congress of legislative powers

Venezuela’s supreme court has reversed the decision to strip congress of its legislative powers that sparked protests in the country and widespread international condemnation.

The move had drawn criticism at home and abroad that the South American country was no longer a democracy, prompting calls from the UN and elsewhere for it to be reconsidered.

President Nicolas Maduro asked the supreme court in a late-night speech to review the ruling nullifying the lawmaking body. The court on Saturday released new rulings that appeared to reinstate congress’s authority.

It was a rare instance of the embattled Socialist president backing away from a move that would have increased his power and will be seen as a small victory for neighbouring democracies.

The head of the Organization of American States had likened it to a “self-inflicted coup” by the president’s “regime” against the opposition-controlled congress. The top United Nations human rights official called on the supreme court to reconsider its decision and urged Maduro’s government to uphold rights to peaceful assembly.

“The separation of powers is essential for democracy to function, and keeping democratic spaces open is essential to ensure human rights are protected,” the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said in a statement on Friday.

In Caracas, national guardsmen in riot gear fired buckshot and swung batons at a small group of students who gathered early outside the supreme court on Friday. A few arrests took place and some journalists covering the demonstration had their cameras taken before the group reassembled elsewhere in the capital.

The magistrates had ruled late on Wednesday that as long as lawmakers remained in contempt of past rulings, the high court, or an institution it designated, could assume the constitutionally assigned powers of the national assembly, which has been controlled by the opposition for nearly a year and a half.

That ruling, alongside another earlier in the week limiting lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution, capped a feud that began when the long-marginalised opposition won control of the legislature by a landslide in December 2015 before mounting a campaign to force Maduro from office.

The leftwing leader, who has seen his approval ratings plunge amid widespread food shortages and triple-digit inflation, had previously responded by relying on the supreme court to unseat several lawmakers and then routinely nullify all legislation voted there.

Peru’s government immediately recalled its ambassador in protest at what it called “a flagrant break in the democratic order”. Colombia called back its ambassador on Friday for consultations. Chile’s left-of-centre president, who has been reluctant to openly criticise Maduro, said she was deeply worried by the ruling and also ordered her ambassador to return home for consultations.

The US state department reiterated its call for Maduro to free political prisoners and hold immediate elections to resolve the crisis, saying the court decision to “usurp” the national assembly’s powers represented a “serious setback for democracy in Venezuela”.