CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's Supreme Court on Monday declared that the new opposition-dominated congress' decisions are void until it unseats three barred lawmakers, bringing the country closer to a showdown over power in the legislature.
Opponents of the socialist revolution launched by Hugo Chavez took control of congress for the first time in 17 years last week. The high court barred three opposition lawmakers from taking their seats to give officials time to look into allegations of electoral fraud.
That ruling angered members of the opposition, who called it an attempt to undermine their historic victory in legislative elections in December, and they swore the lawmakers in anyway. They accuse the Supreme Court of being an arm of President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government and of seeking to steal away its two-thirds majority in congress with the ruling.
On Monday, the court upped the ante in the confrontation by ordering congress to unseat the three deputies from the remote state of Amazonas. It ruled that all its actions are null in the meantime.
The decision, which applies to "all acts that have been taken or will be taken" by the new congress, seems to render the body powerless for now. The congress has not yet passed any legislation.
Some in the opposition denounced it as a coup and vowed to continue defying the court.
"We will not cede one iota of the power that the people of Venezuela gave us," opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara said.
Diosdado Cabello, who had been head of congress until last week and remains one of the most powerful figures in the socialist party, said the ruling was legitimate given that it came from the land's highest court, and opposition leaders should immediately hold a session to remove the three lawmakers.
"I doubt that they actually will, because we know how enormously arrogant the new leaders of the National Assembly are; they are full of hate, bitterness and a desire for revenge," he said.
While it has not yet passed any legislation, early Monday lawmakers began the process of debating a law that would give amnesty to jailed opposition leaders who human rights groups consider to be political prisoners.
They also formed a congressional committee to look into irregularities in the rush appointment of 13 Supreme Court judges just after the socialist party lost Dec. 6 legislative elections. They say the appointments are proof the court is rigged.
The court decision was both shocking and expected for many here. When Venezuela celebrated its version of April Fools Day at the end of December, a popular blog posted a joke article under the headline, "Supreme Court pre-overturns all incoming National Assembly acts as unconstitutional."
Hannah Dreier is on Twitter: twitter.com/hannahdreier. Her work can be found at bigstory.ap.org/content/hannah-dreier.