CARACAS – Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly has appointed 33 alternative judges to the Supreme Court, prompting accusations of an attempted power grab.
The assembly says it has the right to name and fire justices under the country’s constitution.
Describing the move as illegal, the top court has warned that they could be jailed.
In a statement broadcast on state television later on Friday, the Supreme Court blasted the alternative judges who were named by the legislature.
“They’re undertaking crimes against the independence and security of the nation, in particular, in terms of crimes of treason and against the powers of the nation and states,” said Juan Jose Mendoza, the president of the top court‘s constitutional chamber.
Undeterred, opposition lawmakers on Friday swore in the 13 new judges and 20 substitute judges in a public plaza. “We’re not backing down, Venezuela will have a Supreme Court of Justice and institutions at the service of the people and not at the service of whatever government is in power,” said opposition legislator Carlos Berrizbeitia during the ceremony, where the appointed justices were applauded and cheered on with shouts of “Bravo!”
The opposition is stepping up pressure on President Nicolas Maduro to call early elections. The socialist president has refused and is instead going ahead with plans to form a constituent assembly which would have the power to rewrite the constitution and bypass the National Assembly.
Colombia, France, Spain, the US and the EU have urged the Venezuelan government to cancel the vote for a new constituent assembly on 30 July. But Mr. Maduro has rejected the calls.
The impasse has left Venezuela in a political crisis and scores of people have died in months of anti-government protests.
Following the National Assembly’s announcement, the government said it would not allow serving judges to be unseated.
Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic Unity coalition (MUD) has called for protest marches on Saturday from seven points in the capital Caracas to the Supreme Court headquarters. The opposition says the current justices are illegitimate, having been rushed into their positions shortly before the governing party lost its majority in 2015.
Since the opposition took over the National Assembly last year the court has consistently blocked all bills passed by Congress.
On Thursday millions of Venezuelans joined a general strike called by the opposition. At least three people were killed in clashes between police and protesters and there were more than 300 arrests.
Around 100 people have died in unrest that kicked off in early April, thousands have been arrested, and hundreds injured.