CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela's chief prosecutor escalated her challenge to the government of President Nicolas Maduro Tuesday, asking the Supreme Court to strip away the immunity from prosecution of eight magistrates she accuses of breaking the troubled nation's constitutional order.
Luisa Ortega Diaz said allowing the judges in the court's constitutional chamber to remain in office "puts the nation at risk" because of a string of rulings that have undermined attempts to challenge Maduro's government.
"It would be the death of law if we allow these magistrates to continue in that chamber," she said.
Her move comes as Maduro appealed Tuesday to Pope Francis to take an active role encouraging the opposition to sit down for talks aimed at ending more than two months of violence that have left at least 69 people dead, including a police officer who was shot and killed Tuesday breaking up a protest in Merida state.
Maduro, in a letter hand-delivered to the Vatican envoy to Caracas, accused the opposition of using minors as human shields during protests and stirring violence through social media. The letter appeared to be a response to pressure from local bishops who traveled last week to Rome to share with the Pope their criticisms of Maduro's increasing authoritarian bent.
The Vatican sponsored a dialogue effort last year that ended with Maduro's opponents accusing the socialist leader of failing to follow through on commitments to free dozens of jailed activists, recognize decisions by the opposition-controlled National Assembly and present a schedule for elections.
The current wave of unrest was triggered in late March when the Supreme Court's constitutional chamber issued a sentence dissolving the National Assembly, a decision it later reversed amid a torrent of international criticism. More recently, the chamber threw out challenges to Maduro's controversial bid to rewrite the nation's constitution.
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets demanding new elections as the nation battles triple-digit inflation, crippling food and medical shortages and rising crime.
Ortega Diaz, who was long a government loyalist, has repeatedly challenged Maduro's request to convoke a constitutional assembly. Maduro says the constitution rewrite is the best way to promote dialogue to resolve the crisis, but the opposition has refused to participate, claiming Maduro is using it to tighten his grip on power and avoid elections he would likely lose.
Government supporters were quick to dismiss Ortega's latest move, accusing her of covering up protesters' own excesses and use of violence.
"It's obvious to everyone she's not straight in her head," said pro-government lawmaker Pedro Carreno, who called on the Supreme Court to create a medical committee to evaluate Ortega's mental health.
The president doesn't have the authority to fire the chief prosecutor, who can be removed only with the backing of the National Assembly.
On Monday, the Supreme Court dismissed Ortega Diaz's request to stop the constitutional assembly, saying she presented insufficient legal grounds. She responded by introducing a new complaint contesting the appointment of 13 Supreme Court magistrates and 21 substitute judges who were ushered into office in 2015 just before the opposition took control of the National Assembly.
Thus far, the government-stacked Supreme Court has shown no sign of conceding to Ortega Diaz's demands.
The Venezuelan constitution grants immunity to members of the Supreme Court. In order to be removed from office, they must first be investigated by a three-agency commission. That commission includes Ortega Diaz's office, but also two others whose leaders have stood by Maduro throughout two months of upheaval.
The latest turmoil comes a day after a Supreme Court office in Caracas was set on fire. Supreme Court president Maikel Moreno blamed opposition "terrorists" for the blaze Monday and announced he was relocating the office to a new, still undisclosed location, saying the current location is "a territory without law."
On Tuesday, a police supervisor was killed in Merida state. Ortega's office said that Douglas Acevedo was shot in the neck while trying to break up a highway protest in the western city. Three others, including one of his uniformed colleagues, also suffered gunshot wounds.