The Venezuelan government has stripped president Nicolas Maduro’s rival Juan Guaido of his parliamentary immunity, opening the door for his possible arrest and prosecution.
Mr Guaido, head of the opposition-controlled national assembly, declared himself president on January 23 and has been recognised as Venezuela’s legitimate leader by more than 50 countries.
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Until now, Mr Maduro has given Mr Guaido a remarkably free rein, unwilling to risk antagonising supporters of the 35 year old – including the United States and neighbouring Colombia and Brazil.
On Tuesday, however, the constituent assembly – a pro-Maduro rival parliament to the national assembly – voted unanimously to strip Mr Guaido of his immunity, on the recommendation of the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Mr Maduro’s allies argued that Mr Guaido should be prosecuted for violating an order banning him leaving the country while under investigation by the attorney general. He is also accused of inciting violence through street protests, and of receiving illicit funds from abroad.
Mr Guaido, however, brushed off the threat.
“The regime believes that by attacking me, they will stop us,” he told supporters outside his house on Tuesday night. “There’s no way back in this process.”
He said that he knows he now runs the risk of being “kidnapped” by Mr Maduro’s allies. His chief of staff, Roberto Marrero, was snatched from his home at 2am on March 21, and is being held on terrorism charges.
Mr Maduro has so far stopped short of detaining Mr Guaido himself, but the youthful politician said he knew it was a possibility.
"We are aware of that," he said. "But we will not change our path."
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 nations 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 and dealt with accordingly," said Mr Rubio.
However, Diosdado Cabello, the head of the constituent assembly and one of the most powerful men in Venezuela, accused the opposition of naively inviting a foreign invasion and of inciting a civil war.
"They don’t care about the deaths," said Mr Cabello. "They don’t have the slightest idea what the consequences of war are for a country."
Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the Maduro government may be assessing its strength within the global community.
"This seems like an attempt to test the waters, weighing how the international community would react to detaining Guaido," he said.
"The government is reasserting its authority while also sending a clear signal to the opposition: we are in control."