By Hugh Bronstein
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelans who express "hate or intolerance" will be jailed for up to 25 years under a bill pending in the country's newly-formed constituent assembly, a measure the opposition fears will be used by the government to further crack down on dissent.
President Nicolas Maduro has faced a cacophony of international criticism - from the United Nations to Pope Francis - since he installed the 545-member assembly stacked with Socialist Party allies earlier this month. The president defends the new legislative superbody as Venezuela's only hope for peace and prosperity
The OPEC member has been rocked by anti-government unrest that has left more than 120 people dead while the country sinks further into a recession compounded by triple-digit inflation and acute food shortages.
Local rights group Penal Forum estimated that Maduro's government was holding 676 political prisoners as of Wednesday, a number that could rise once the hate crimes measure becomes law.
"The question is whether this is the peace he's looking for: creating a law that gives him and his obedient supreme court judiciary powers to lock up dissidents for 25 years," Tamara Taraciuk, head Venezuela researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in a Wednesday telephone interview.
"The proposal includes incredibly vague language that would allow them to jail anyone for almost anything," she added.
The assembly was scheduled later on Wednesday to empanel a "Truth Commission" headed by Maduro loyalist and former Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, to prosecute those responsible for violent anti-government protests.
"Anyone who goes out into the streets to express intolerance and hatred will be captured and will be tried and punished with sentences of 15, 20, 25 years of jail," Maduro recently told the assembly, drawing a standing ovation.
In its first session after being elected on July 30, the assembly fired Venezuela's top prosecutor Louisa Ortega and appointed a Maduro loyalist to replace her.
With chief prosecutor Ortega, who had accused Maduro of human rights abuses, out of the way, the assembly on Tuesday ordered that cases of protesters detained this year be held in civilian rather than military courts.
The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists said in a report on Wednesday that Ortega's dismissal "removes one of the last remaining institutional checks on executive authority."
The country's new chief prosecutor, Maduro's ex-human rights ombudsman Tarek Saab, on Wednesday outlined corruption accusations against his predecessor Ortega, her husband and members of her team of prosecutors.
The opposition, in control of the traditional congress, boycotted the election of the assembly, meaning that all candidates for the new body were Maduro allies.
(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta, editing by G Crosse)