CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Legislators loyal to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Monday stripped immunity from four opposition lawmakers accused of treason amid a struggle for control of the crisis-stricken nation.
The move brings to 18 the number of opposition politicians Maduro's government has threatened with criminal prosecution so far this year.
Socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello oversaw the unanimous vote as head of the National Constituent Assembly, legislative body stacked with Maduro's allies that rivals the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Its members cheered and waved Venezuelan flags overhead throughout the afternoon session.
"Justice is slow, but it gets to where it has to go," said Cabello, justifying the move by saying that the lawmakers had been caught "flagrantly" in the act of criminal activity, depriving them of immunities from prosecution normally granted to legislators.
It comes as a political battle for control of Venezuela between Maduro's socialist government and opposition leader Juan Guaidó plays out. As head of the National Assembly, Guaidó in January launched a campaign to oust Maduro with backing from the United States and more than 50 other nations.
The four lawmakers singled out Monday were José Guerra, Rafael Guzmán, Tomás Guanipa and Juan Pablo García Canales. Others already facing criminal prosecution have sought refuge in foreign embassies or fled the country, fearing for their safety.
Edgar Zambrano, vice president of the National Assembly, remains jailed after being accused of participating in a failed military uprising on April 30. He was towed to jail inside his car.
Guerra responded in a video posted online, calling the charges "absurd."
"You're the ones who are traitors, who have left this country in misery and ruin," he said, speaking from an undisclosed location.
Actions taken by pro-Maduro legislators on Monday, however, fell far short of warnings a day earlier from Guaidó, who said he had learned the body would dissolve the opposition-run congress completely and call for an early election.
That quickly raised alarms because the National Assembly has been the last branch of Venezuela's government to remain independent from the control of Maduro's ruling socialist party.
Instead, under Cabello's lead, the National Constituent Assembly formed a commission to consider when the election should be held. He said its members could decide to elect a new National Assembly in the next days or anytime next year.
The National Assembly's 5-year term is set to end in December 2020, and elections are traditionally held in the last month of its session. Maduro has threatened for months to call early parliamentary elections.
Guaidó in a video streamed on social media late Sunday warned that Maduro's National Constituent Assembly was preparing to announce "illegal" measures by dissolving the congress, which would launch a new phase of "heightened conflict."
He called on members of armed forces, the Venezuelan public and international community to be aware of the government's "new madness."
"The people of Venezuela should be alert," Guaidó said. "If the dictator decides to continue down this road... of course our response will come from the people."