CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition defied a court ruling and swore into the new congress on Wednesday three lawmakers barred from taking their seats, deepening the showdown between the legislature and President Nicolas Maduro's government.
The opposition won a super-majority of two thirds in legislative elections in December, but the Supreme Court granted injunctions against the three, all from the jungle state of Amazonas, after allegations of irregularities.
But in the second session of the National Assembly after its inauguration on Tuesday, the majority opposition bloc went ahead to let the three take office.
One of the three, Romel Guzamana, said the Supreme Court was a politicized body that had no right to block them. "It was a violation of our human rights," he said.
Government legislators were quick to react, saying the National Assembly had breached the constitution.
"Those people are not legislators ... a conflict of powers is coming," former assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who is the ruling Socialist Party's No. 2, told reporters, adding that the matter would return to the Supreme Court.
The case of the three is crucial because they tip the opposition over the two-thirds line in the assembly of 167 members. That majority gives the opposition expanded powers, including the capacity to fire Maduro's cabinet ministers.
While the opposition is pushing for a recall referendum to oust Maduro this year - as allowed half-way through his term under the constitution if nearly 4 million voters request it - the government is playing hard ball after its December loss.
Before the new National Assembly convened, the government eliminated its control over the central bank. Also, 13 new Supreme Court justices were sworn in by the outgoing assembly in December, which critics slammed as a last-minute court-packing scheme by the Socialist Party.
A fourth government legislator from Amazonas was also barred from taking office by the Supreme Court, pending investigations into the election there. He has not been sworn in.
Reporting by Corina Pons, Eyanir Chinea and Alexandra Ulmer; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Leslie Adler