CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela jailed three anti-government politicians in what the opposition denounced on Thursday as a new crackdown on dissent in the economically struggling country.
The wave of arrests began Wednesday night when police acting on orders of a new "anti-coup" unit inside the socialist government arrested substitute lawmaker Gilber Caro from a hard-line opposition party. Vice President Tareck El Aissami announced the arrest on state TV, saying police at a highway toll station found a gun and explosives in his car.
Shortly afterward, government opponent Jorge Luiz Gonzalez, a councilman in the western city of Maracaibo, was also picked up on weapons charges.
Then on Thursday, officials threw back in jail former Gen. Raul Baduel, a former defense minister under the late President Hugo Chavez, alleging he was conspiring to overthrow the government. Baduel, now a staunch government critic, had been freed from prison in 2015 after serving six years on corruption charges.
The arrests, along with an apparent threat to ban two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles from holding office, put the opposition on edge as it tries to jumpstart a campaign to force President Nicolas Maduro from office. It would also appear to go against the government's recent freeing of several jailed activists under a Vatican-sponsored mediation effort to ease tensions in the country.
Caro's allies said the weapons allegedly found in his car were planted there to frame him. They accused the government of seeking revenge for the decision this week by the opposition-controlled congress to declare that Maduro had abandoned his post by neglecting his duties. The largely symbolic resolution has already been overturned by the government-stacked Supreme Court.
"Right now we know nothing about Gilber," his sister, Yeidi Caro, told journalists. "We haven't even received a phone call."
Baduel, who came to Chavez's rescue in a 2002 coup attempt, has always maintained that his initial arrest for corruption was a ploy to punish him for speaking out against the government. His son Adolfo Baduel said on Twitter that his father had not violated any conditions of his parole, as the government alleged in ordering his arrest.
Some in the opposition's fractious Democratic Unity coalition are pushing for a new round of street protests while others are advocating attending a round of talks with the government scheduled for Friday. Opposition leaders have said they won't participate in the meeting unless the government releases more than 100 political prisoners.
Last year, the government freed 43 opposition activists, including high-profile former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, but it also jailed 55 others, according to Foro Penal, a group of lawyers that defends dozens of jailed activists.
Capriles, one of the most-popular opposition politicians and governor of Miranda state, said Wednesday that the state comptroller had opened a probe against him for alleged administrative irregularities. A decision is expected in the coming days and could result in his being removed from office.