Maduro loyalists strip Venezuela’s Juan Guaido of immunity

Juan Guaido, who many nations recognise as Venezuela’s legitimate leader (Fernando Llano/AP)

Juan Guaido has embarked on an international campaign to topple Nicolas Maduro’s administration.

Nicolas Maduro loyalists have stripped Venezuela’s Juan Guaido of immunity, paving the way for the opposition leader’s prosecution and potential arrest for supposedly violating the constitution when he declared himself interim president.

But whether the government of President Maduro will take action against the 35-year-old following the Constituent Assembly’s decision remains unclear.

Mr Guaido has embarked on an international campaign to topple the president’s socialist administration amid deepening social unrest in the country plagued by nearly a month of power outages.

He declared himself Venezuela’s interim president in January, and vowed to overthrow Mr Maduro.

A defiant Mr Guaido spoke publicly moments after the vote, saying he was undeterred while knowing he runs the risk of being “kidnapped” by the Maduro government.

“We are aware of that,” Mr Guaido said. “But we will not change our path.”

He cited low wages driving millions abroad and the spate of blackouts that have crippled the nation’s public transportation, water services and communications.

The Trump administration has threatened the Maduro government with a strong response if Mr Guaido is harmed and Florida Senator Marco Rubio — who has Mr Trump’s ear on Venezuela policy — said before the vote that nations recognising Mr Guaido as his country’s legitimate leader should take any attempt by Mr Maduro’s government to “abduct” him as a coup.

“And anyone who cooperates with this should be treated as a coup plotter & dealt with accordingly,” Mr Rubio said on Twitter.

Tuesday night’s vote was unanimous. Constituent Assembly president and socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello accused the opposition of naively inviting a foreign invasion and of inciting a civil war.

“They don’t care about the deaths,” Mr Cabello said. “They don’t have the slightest idea of “what the consequences of war are for a country”.

The Constituent Assembly met a day after Mr Maduro ally and Venezuela Supreme Court of Justice Maikel Moreno ordered the legislative body to strip Mr Guaido’s immunity for violating an order banning him leaving the country while under investigation by the attorney general.

The opposition leader is also accused of inciting violence linked to street protests, and of receiving illicit funds from abroad.

A government supporter holds up a framed image of President Nicolas Maduro during an anti-imperialist rally in Caracas last weekend (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

The Constitution guarantees immunity for elected officials, and says that in order to withdraw immunity the accused must be given a preliminary hearing before the Supreme Court.

The action must be approved by the National Assembly — steps that were not taken in Mr Guaido’s case.

Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Guaido dismissed the Maduro-stacked high court and Constituent Assembly as illegitimate, and continued his calls for Mr Maduro to step down.

Mr Guaido has come under increasing pressure in recent weeks.

Officials jailed his chief of staff, Roberto Marrero, accused of involvement in a “terrorist” scheme to overthrow the government.

Mr Maduro’s government also barred Mr Guaido from holding public office for 15 years for allegedly hiding or falsifying data in his sworn statement of assets.

The opposition leader has drawn masses of Venezuelans into the streets and garnered broad international support, demanding Mr Maduro give up rule of the crisis-wracked nation.

Defying the court order, Mr Guaido left the country in late February for a 10-day tour of South America, meeting with foreign leaders who support the Venezuelan opposition and who reject Mr Maduro’s election last year for a second six-year term.

Press Association