CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s outgoing National Assembly on Thursday tapped a judge who is hated by the opposition for jailing politician Leopoldo Lopez as the next human rights ombudsman in the increasingly hostile aftermath of legislative elections.
Judge Susana Barreiros in September ruled Lopez had masterminded anti-government riots that erupted last year, and condemned him to nearly 14 years in prison.
The opposition, which deems the U.S.-educated activist an innocent scapegoat of a dictatorial government, decried Barreiros’ appointment to the post of state rights watchdog.
“To propose Susana Barreiros is an offense,” said opposition legislator Hermes Garcia. “She is profoundly questioned for her ethical and moral behavior. This moribund National Assembly has turned its back on the people.”
Venezuela’s opposition won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly as of January, when its priority is an amnesty law for jailed politicians including Lopez. The opposition could try to remove Barreiros in the New Year but it would a complicated process involving the Supreme Court.
Presaging a political showdown, President Nicolas Maduro has warned he will veto an amnesty law, and his Socialist Party aims to appoint over a dozen Supreme Court judges before rivals take the legislature.
The broadly unpopular Maduro has also lashed out at former government supporters who turned against him as an exhausting economic crisis, including food shortages and indomitable inflation, pummels the OPEC country.
On TV this week, he even threatened to scale back a flagship government housing project for low-income families.
“I wanted to build 500,000 houses next year. But now I‘m doubting that. I asked for your support and you didn’t give it to me,” he said, also warning that the opposition-led Congress will cut spending on welfare.
Critics say Maduro should eschew scare tactics and instead tackle a ballooning economic crisis rooted in dysfunctional state controls and exacerbated by the oil price fall.
Lopez is a divisive figure among Maduro’s rivals too. While hardliners laud Lopez for taking to the street last year, some opposition moderates feel he is a hot-head who miscalculated.
Defying international calls to release Lopez may help the government’s standing with hard-core supporters, who largely see him as a dangerous coupster.
“We’re happy the bourgeoisie is attacking a courageous woman,” National Assembly boss and Socialist Party heavyweight Diosdado Cabello said of Barreiros.
“That means we’re on the right road.”
Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Alistair Bell