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CARACAS, Venezuela – The opposition-controlled congress named a slate of new judges Friday replace the government-stacked Supreme Court, which wasted no time in rejecting the move as an ongoing power struggle heats up between President Nicolas Maduro and his foes.
Emboldened by a 24-hour national strike that paralyzed much of the country the previous day, the National Assembly named the 33 magistrates to replace the entire Supreme Court, which Maduro opponents argue does his bidding and continually violates the constitution. Many of the current court's justices were hastily appointed shortly before the ruling party lost its majority in congress.
"Today our justice system has been hijacked. It is at the service of the regime," congresswoman Sonia Medina said at ceremonial swearing-in of the magistrates. "The judges have removed themselves from submitting to the rule of law, from the honor of judicial power, to repress, pursue, torture and jail."
The Supreme Court promptly moved to block the newcomers, declaring the appointments to be in violation of the constitution.
Jose Mendoza, head of the court's constitutional branch, said offenses punishable by both the civilian and military penal codes had been committed, and authorities should take unspecified actions in response.
"It is time for them to respect the rules of the game," Mendoza said.
The National Assembly has the power to install members of the Supreme Court, but Mendoza said there are no vacancies and any judges appointed would be illegally usurping authority.
The National Assembly and the Supreme Court have been at odds since the opposition gained a majority in 2015 legislative elections.
The court's constitutional chamber voided eight laws passed by the National Assembly between January and October 2016, after just one such ruling in the previous 200 years, legal experts say.
In late March a Supreme Court decision stripping the National Assembly of its remaining powers unleashed the current wave of political unrest. Though the decision was later reversed following a backlash of domestic and international criticism, protests erupted in which at least 97 people have been killed in nearly four months.
Demonstrators are demanding that presidential elections scheduled for 2018 be held immediately as the country slides further into triple-digit inflation, food shortages leave families hungry and corruption runs rampant.
President Maduro is pushing a July 30 vote for a special assembly to rewrite the 1999 constitution crafted under the late President Hugo Chavez. Maduro claims the constituent assembly will promote dialogue and resolve the standoff, but the opposition has refused to participate in what it considers an attempt by Maduro to further consolidate power.
The constituent assembly could do away with the National Assembly entirely and cancel the 2018 presidential vote.
Venezuela is facing mounting international pressure to suspend the upcoming election of the special assembly. The Mercosur trade bloc on Friday asked Maduro to halt the plan and offered to facilitate talks between the government and the opposition.
Venezuela became a member of the trade group in 2012 when South America was dominated by leftist governments, but was suspended last year over what other members said was its failure to comply with commitments to democracy and human rights.
"We call on the government and the opposition not to carry out any initiative that could further divide Venezuelan society," Mercosur leaders said in a statement following a meeting in Mendoza, Argentina.
Maduro and his allies are nonetheless pressing forward with the vote, heightening their rhetoric in recent days against the opposition and warning that the constitution rewrite will ensure they face justice.
"No one can mess with the constituent assembly," Maduro told supporters Friday in a speech that hailed the yet-to-be-written document as a solution for the country's economic woes.
The military announced it was deploying 185,000 troops to "guarantee the security and peace of the people during the electoral process."
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said the initiative was being launched much earlier than planned due to the unrest. He added that the military would help make sure "the country can return to how it should be."
Opponents are escalating protests ahead of the vote. Thursday's one-day strike, when four demonstrators were killed, left many parts of the capital, Caracas, desolate.
The opposition called for another mass protest Saturday.
"At stake is our existence. At stake is the country," opposition leader Andres Velasquez said. "And that's why no one can be indifferent."
Associated Press writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.