CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's new constitutional assembly took over the halls of the endangered, opposition-controlled congress Tuesday and decreed itself superior to all other branches of government while prominently displaying images of the late President Hugo Chavez.
The order bars anti-government lawmakers in congress from taking any action that would interfere with the laws passed by the newly installed assembly, Delcy Rodriguez, the super-body's leader, declared to unanimous approval.
"We are not threatening anyone," said Aristobulo Isturiz, the constitutional assembly's first vice president. "We are looking for ways to coexist."
Embattled President Nicolas Maduro convoked the constitutional assembly in what he contends is an attempt to resolve the nation's political standoff, but opposition leaders insist it is a power grab. Since its installation Friday, the assembly has already ousted the nation's outspoken chief prosecutor, established a "truth commission" expected to target Maduro's foes and passed decrees pledging "support and solidarity" with the unpopular president.
Opposition lawmakers said they were barred from entering the gold-domed legislative palace after security forces led by Rodriguez broke into congress late Monday.
"This government invades the spaces that it is not capable of legitimately winning," Stalin Gonzalez, an opposition lawmaker, wrote on Twitter of the assembly's takeover of the chamber the opposition has controlled since winning 2015 elections.
Before the assembly met, Venezuela's pro-government Supreme Court sentenced a Caracas-area mayor at the center of recent protests to 15 months in prison for not following an order to remove barricades set up during anti-government demonstrations.
Ramon Muchacho is the fourth opposition mayor ordered arrested by the high court the past two weeks. The court also ordered an investigation into another prominent Caracas-area mayor, David Smolansky, for the same alleged crimes.
Muchacho's whereabouts were not immediately known, but he denounced the ruling on Twitter, saying that "all of the weight of the revolutionary injustice has fallen on my shoulders" for merely acting to guarantee the constitutional right to protest.
The constitutional assembly's meeting Tuesday came amid mounting criticism from foreign governments that have refused to recognize the new body.
The foreign ministers of 17 Western Hemisphere nations met in Peru to discuss how to force Maduro to back down. Peru's president has been vocal in rejecting the new Venezuelan assembly, but the region has had trouble agreeing on collective actions. The ministers issued a statement after the meeting condemning the body and reiterating previous calls for the parties in Venezuela to negotiate on ending the political crisis.
Meanwhile, leaders from the Bolivarian Alliance, a leftist coalition of 11 Latin American nations, met in Caracas and declared the creation of Venezuela's constitutional assembly a "sovereign act" aimed at helping the nation overcome its difficulties.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told representatives from the ALBA nations, including Cuba and Bolivia, that longstanding U.S. aggression against Maduro and Venezuela have recently entered "a much stronger phase."
The Trump administration announced last week it was freezing any U.S. assets Maduro might possess and barring any American from doing business with him in response to the July 30 election for delegates to the constitutional assembly.
"We reiterate the call for a constructive and respectful dialogue," the alliance said in a statement read after the meeting.
Opposition lawmakers have vowed to hold onto their only government foothold — the country's single-chamber congress — despite threats from the constitutional assembly to strip them of any authority and lock up key leaders. Lawmakers voted unanimously Monday not to recognize any of the new super-body's decrees.
Since the disputed election, security forces have stepped up their presence. The U.N. human rights commissioner report warned of "widespread and systematic use" of excessive force, arbitrary detention and other rights violations against demonstrators.
Only a few dozen demonstrators heeded the opposition's call to set up traffic-snarling roadblocks in Caracas Tuesday to show their opposition to the new assembly.
Protests that drew hundreds of thousands at their peak are drawing fewer and fewer as fear and resignation creep in. At least 124 people have been killed and hundreds more injured or detained during the protests.
A United Nations report released Tuesday found that Venezuela's armed forces were responsible for 46 of the deaths since April. Another 27 people were killed by groups of armed, pro-government civilians, the report said.
Now at a crossroads, opposition parties are facing a rapidly approaching deadline to decide whether to take part in regional elections scheduled for December.
The National Electoral Council announced that the nation's largest opposition coalition was barred from entering candidates in seven of Venezuela's 23 states, citing ongoing court proceedings. In recent years, the government has also taken action prohibiting high-profile opposition leaders from running.
While Maduro's popular support is estimated to be no higher than 20 percent, some opposition leaders are skeptical of running in regional elections they fear could be rigged. The official turnout count in last month's constitutional assembly election has been questioned at home and abroad.
Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.
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