Venezuelan high court rejects move to stop Maduro’s rewrite of constitution

An anti-government demonstrator, left, argues with a government supporter about the devaluation, showing bank notes of one 100 Bolivars, outside the Supreme Court during a protest to support the chief prosecutor's motion to stop President Nicolas Maduro's push to rewrite the constitution Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, June 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s Supreme Court on Monday rejected the chief prosecutor’s motion to stop President Nicolas Maduro’s push to rewrite the constitution as the restive nation continued to be rocked by protests and a transit strike.

The Supreme Court’s electoral branch declared Luisa Ortega Diaz’s request inadmissible on the same day anti-government demonstrators were marching toward the high court in protest of its refusal to stop Maduro’s special assembly.

Opposition leaders said pro-government armed groups known as “colectivos” clashed with protesters and journalists near the Supreme Court and witnesses’ videos showed fistfights and people being shoved to the ground at the demonstration site. National guardsmen in black helmets and bulletproof vests stretched across a street with plastic shields, blocking protesters from reaching the court.

The decision came four days after Ortega Diaz made an impassioned plea on the Supreme Court steps, grasping Venezuela’s small blue constitution book in her hands and declaring the future of the nation’s democracy was at stake.

Two months of anti-government protests have left at least 68 people dead as demonstrators demand new presidential elections in the face of triple-digit inflation that keeps rising, soaring crime and crippling food and medical shortages.

Venezuelans in Caracas awoke Monday to find their city paralyzed by a public transportation strike that union leaders said stretched through 90 percent of the capital. Transit workers said they were protesting unsafe work conditions and demanding the release of a colleague detained nearly two weeks ago. Bus driver Santos Quevedo was charged with terrorism after allegedly transporting a group of opposition protesters, but local reports say the government opponents forced him to give them a ride.

As during previous protests, the government closed several metro stations.

Speaking outside the Supreme Court, union leaders said transit workers are the first to wake up in the morning and often exposed to dangerous conditions in a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

“Every time we leave our homes we don’t know if we’ll return alive,” said Pedro Jimenez, president of a local union called the Southwest Transporters Bloc. He demanded that the government take action to ensure drivers’ safety.

Three kilometers (1.9 miles) away, the Venezuelan Red Cross draped a giant white flag with a red cross above its entrance, an act usually reserved for extraordinary events such as natural disasters, to identify it as a neutral safe haven. The last time the flag is believed to have been raised was in April 2013 during the presidential election to replace the late President Hugo Chavez, which Maduro won by a narrow vote.

The Red Cross raised the flag again as a protective measure in light of recent protests in which authorities have used tear gas near the institution’s hospital, said Jose Ramon Gonzalez, the group’s national relief director. Though the institution itself has not been attacked, Gonzalez said the flag is meant to help protect both medical aid workers and patients arriving at the hospital.

The agency has treated 254 patients in Caracas and more than 500 nationwide during the recent wave of protests, Gonzalez said. The majority have suffered from ailments related to inhaling tear gas, being struck by rubber bullets and surface wounds.

More than 1,000 people have been injured nationwide in a wave of unrest unleashed after the Supreme Court in late March stripped the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its last powers, a decision later reserved amid a storm of international criticism. Many of the protests have ended with state security launching tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters, some of whom throw rocks and even jars filled with feces at officers.

Maduro has vowed to resolve the crisis by convening a special assembly to rewrite the constitution. But the opposition refuses to participate, denouncing the push as another means by which he will further consolidate his power.

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