3 Dead as Venezuela Strike Enters Second Day

A general strike entered its second day in Venezuela Thursday as clashes left three more people dead in an intensifying showdown over President Nicolas Maduro’s plan to rewrite the beleaguered nation’s constitution.

With the approach of controversial elections on Sunday of a 545-seat Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution, the opposition and the Maduro government, which has shown no sign of backing down, skirmished in the streets.

Barricades made from debris dotted eastern Caracas and signs were up that read “No more dictatorships!”

Maduro says a new constitution is the only way to bring peace, but the opposition is vehemently opposed, fearing a power grab to keep the embattled leftist government in power.

“What happens if they impose the Constituent Assembly? The crisis will worsen. Where does Maduro want to take the country? To a social explosion?” said Henrique Capriles, an opposition leader.

The latest deaths in clashes with security forces raised to 106 the number of people killed since April 1.

In Washington, the US Treasury unveiled a list of 13 current and former officials, including the interior minister, senior military brass, the president of the electoral council, and the finance chief of state oil company PDVSA, whose US assets would be frozen.

“Anyone elected to the National Constituent Assembly should know that their role in undermining democratic processes and institutions in Venezuela could expose them to potential US sanctions,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said.

His threat was echoed by other US officials who said such penalties could be applied to any “bad actors” in Maduro’s government who are involved in corruption, human rights abuses or efforts to undermine democracy.

The Venezuelan president called the US punishment “illegal, insolent and unprecedented.”

But in his country, where there are widespread shortages of basic goods and soaring inflation, protesters are showing their discontent with Maduro’s leadership. Organizers claimed 92 percent support for the walkout.

The Venezuelan military has declared its loyalty to him. But some 70 percent of Venezuelans are opposed to the Constituent Assembly, according to polling firm Datanalisis.

The hardening political struggle has deepened fears that months of street violence could worsen.

The opposition has planned another major demonstration in the capital on Friday.

Venezuela Opposition Hails Poll as Blow to Maduro, Plots ‘Zero Hour’

Energized by a massive vote against President Nicolas Maduro in an unofficial plebiscite, Venezuela’s opposition mulled on Monday how to escalate protests and block his plan to rewrite the constitution for the purpose of having Socialist Party hegemony.

After nearly four months of street rallies that have led to nearly 100 deaths, the Democratic Unity coalition brought millions onto the streets on Sunday for an informal referendum intended to de-legitimize a leader they call a dictator.

Now, opposition leaders are promising “Zero Hour” in Venezuela to demand a general election and stop the leftist Maduro’s plan to create a controversial new legislative super-body called a Constituent Assembly in a July 30 vote.

Opposition tactics could include lengthy road blockades and sit-ins, a national strike, or possibly even a march on the Miraflores presidential palace, similar to events before a short-lived coup against Maduro’s successor Hugo Chavez in 2002.

“Today, Venezuela stood up with dignity to say freedom does not go backwards, democracy is not negotiated,” Julio Borges, who leads the opposition-controlled legislature, said.

“We don’t want a fraudulent Constituent Assembly imposed on us. We don’t want to be Cuba. We don’t want to be a country without freedom,” he added, promising further announcements on opposition strategy.

Maduro, whose term is due to end in early 2019, dismissed Sunday’s opposition event.

“Don’t go crazy, calm down,” he said in a message to the opposition, vowing his Constituent Assembly would bring peace to the volatile nation.

Maduro, 54, narrowly won election in 2013 but has seen his ratings plunge, to just over 20 percent, during a brutal economic crisis.

Most Venezuelans oppose the Constituent Assembly, which will have power to rewrite the constitution and annul the current opposition-led legislature, but Maduro is pressing on anyway for the vote in two weeks’ time.

In three questions at Sunday’s event, opposition supporters voted overwhelmingly – by 98 percent – to reject the proposed new assembly, urge the military to defend the existing constitution, and support elections before Maduro’s term ends.

Sunday’s nearly 7.2 million participation compared with 7.7 million opposition votes in the 2015 legislative elections that it won by a landslide and 7.3 million votes for the opposition in a 2013 presidential poll narrowly won by Maduro.

Venezuela “sent a clear message to the national executive and the world,” announced Central University of Venezuela president Cecilia Garcia Arocha, noting that 6,492,381 voted in the country and 693,789 abroad.

Garcia said final results would be released Monday.

Tunisian Authorities Arrest Dozens for Protesting Illegal Stalls, Fuel Price Hike


Tunisia – Two police officers were injured and 47 people were arrested during clashes between hundreds of street vendors and security forces in the center of the capital, Tunisian Interior Ministry said Monday.

These incidents occurred during a gathering of about 300 people who came to demonstrate in front of the headquarters of the Tunisian General Labor Union against the local authorities’ crackdown against illegal stalls.

According to the ministry, the security forces intervened to evacuate the premises. The situation eventually turned violent when the protesters threw stones at the police, who retaliated by firing tear gas.

The governorate of Tunis was alerted on June 19 of the uncontrolled exploitation of public places, prompting it to set an ultimatum of five days for illegal street vendors to vacate the area.

The protests were also instigated by the Tunisia’s government’s decision on Sunday to cut fuel subsidies, raising petrol prices by 6.7 percent in an effort to trim its budget deficit.

Authorities lifted the price of unleaded petrol from 1.650 dinars per liter to 1.750. The last increase in fuel prices was in 2014.

The Energy Ministry said in a statement that it has decided to increase the prices of unleaded fuel and diesel by 100 milims and 90 milims respectively, while keeping the prices of other petroleum products unchanged.

The price review comes in the wake of protests over unemployment and development that have erupted near oil production sites over the past three months. The rallies led to a weeks-long halt in production in Tataouine and Kebili in the south.

Morocco: State Minister in Charge of Human Rights Boycotts Debate on Al-Hoceima Protests


Rabat- State Minister in Charge of Human Rights Mustapha Ramid announced that he will boycott the debate on Al Hoceima protests scheduled on Friday. Ilyas El Omari, the president of the Tangier-Tetouan-Al Hoceima region, called for this debate.

Ramid reaction came as a response to Omari criticism of the current government and of the former and current prime minister as well as for him holding everyone responsible for protests that spurred in the region.

He stated that the media appearance of Omari was not successful – two days before the debate – where he called on all parties to be part of the debate.

Ramid saw that Omari decided to end the discussion before he commences with his debate and he is also accusing the government and institutions in a desperate attempt to rehabilitate himself and his party.

Omari, during a televised interview, held Abdelilah Benkirane, former prime minister and his first rival, responsible for the troubled condition of the country – “Benkirane spoke much and left behind him a disaster that was inherited by Saad Eddine El Othmani who didn’t know how to deal with it,” Ramid added.

Observers saw that Omari acted in advance of the debate through launching anti-government statements in a quest to garner approval over his initiative, knowing that the role of his party has sharply shrank following elections of October 7.

Amina Maelainine from the Justice and Development Party (PJD), lauded Ramid stance and his boycott of the debate, considering that the attendance of leaders and minsters from the party is a betrayal of the party.

Protests in Rabat in Solidarity with Rif Movement

Rabat- Thousands of people took to the streets of Rabat on Sunday demanding that authorities release the leaders of a protest movement in al-Hoceima and surrounding cities in the Rif region of northern Morocco.

The demonstrators marched along Mohamed VI avenue in downtown Rabat in solidarity with Hoceima chanting “Free the prisoners!” including the movement leader Nasser Zefzafi, who was among the first to be arrested on May 29.

The demonstration in Rabat was one of the largest of its kind in several years.

Banned from formal politics Justice and Charity movement  participated in the demonstration, in addition to several parties and the Moroccan Association of Human Rights. Justice and Charity is the only opposition group able to mobilize on a massive scale.

Many protesters held up portraits of Zefzafi, and his father also briefly joined the protest alongside the families of other arrested activists.

Justice and Development Party and Movement for Unification and Reform among other movements and parties were not present at the protests.

Secretary General of Development Party and Movement Abdelilah Benkirane criticized the government for not handling the protests in Rif well.

Demonstrators called for economic and social reforms for the Rif region and demanded the sacking of several governmental officials, in requests reminiscent to the 2011 protests led by the February 20 movement.

Deputy secretary-general of Justice and Charity Fathallah Arsalane said that it is only natural for the organization to participate in the protests because the social problems are aggravating and that people can no longer tolerate injustice.

Arsalane called upon the “sane” people in the government to handle the issue and deal with Rif residents because they are a part of this country and their demands are lawful.

The deputy secretary-general of Justice and Charity told Asharq Al-Awsat that the ball is now in the court of the government, saying it should either meet the demands of the protesters, or the rate of demonstrations will increase.

As long as the people are suffering, they won’t be silenced, he warned.

President of Moroccan Association of Human Rights Ahmed al-Hayej reiterated that it is crucial for all detainees to be released. He also asked the government to reopen dialogue channels with leaders of the movement.

Hayej told Asharq Al-Awsat that the protests would be seen as fruitful only if the authorities respond to the demands of demonstrators.

He did, however, declare that solidarity with Rif would grow stronger if there was no change to the status quo and if more people continued to be arrested.

Venezuela Anti-Maduro Unrest Marks 50th Day with Huge Protests

Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Venezuela on Saturday, day 50 of an angry and sometimes deadly showdown with the unpopular government of President Nicolas Maduro. Scores of people were injured in the demonstrations.

The opposition blames Maduro for the economic mess in oil-rich Venezuela, demanding early elections to replace the socialist who took over from the late Hugo Chavez. Seven weeks of street protests have left 47 people dead.

As with many of the previous marches in the crisis-hit country, police fired tear gas at protesters in the capital suffering from dire shortages of the most basic of goods.

In Caracas alone, some 160,000 marched through the city trying to reach the Interior Ministry in the city center, said Edinson Ferrer, spokesman for the opposition coalition MUD, citing a preliminary estimate.

Police firing tear gas broke up the demonstration and protesters responded by throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.
At least 46 people were injured in the eastern district of Chacao, the authorities said, including a woman hit by a vehicle.

Riots were taking place on the city’s outskirts overnight.

In the western city of San Cristobal in Tachira state, an estimated 40,000-plus took to the streets. Maduro ordered 2,600 soldiers to Tachira this week to quell street violence and looting.

In Caracas, demonstrators carried signs that read “#We are millions against the dictatorship” and “#No more dictatorship!”

The protesters blame Maduro for shortages of food, medicine and such basics as soap and even toilet paper, saying he is maneuvering to dodge calls for early elections.

“Fifty days and they’ve assassinated 50 people… Despite everything, on day 50, amid more repression, there is more resistance and more fight for Venezuela,” said two-time presidential candidate and de facto opposition
leader, Henrique Capriles.

He was surrounded by supporters when he spoke at the Caracas march.

One of Capriles’s lawyers delivered a report on the Venezuelan crisis to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Friday after Venezuelan officials “canceled” the opposition leader’s passport, preventing him from flying to New York.

The turnout for Saturday’s demonstrations came close to the biggest rally during seven weeks of protests, when several hundred thousand people came out on April 19. The demonstrations have degenerated into violence that, besides the 47 dead, has left hundreds injured, 2,200 detained and some 161 imprisoned by military tribunals.

On the other side of town, some 2,000 pro-government workers sang and danced as they staged a rival march to show their support for the president’s controversial plan to elect a constitutional assembly to rewrite the constitution.

On Thursday, the United States imposed sanctions on the chief judge and seven other members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court and President Donald Trump described Venezuela’s humanitarian situation as “a disgrace to humanity.”

Maduro responded by telling Trump to stop meddling in Venezuela’s affairs.

Tunisian PM Appoints New Regional Governors after Growing Protests


Tunis – Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed announced in Thursday changes in the positions of four regional governors in wake growing protests over poor living conditions, lack of development and high unemployment.

Sami al-Ghaby has been appointed governor of Kebili, Saleh Mterawi has been named governor of Tozeur, Adel Shlewi was named governor of Sousse and Mounir Hamdi was appointed governor of Kairouan, said a statement issued by the premiership.

In addition, the government announced the details of the restructuring of the Interior Ministry that restores the administrative and security privileges of regional governors. They also now answer to the Ministry and the premiership.

The governors have authority over regional security chiefs and the heads of security stations. They therefore have jurisdiction to take immediate decisions in the case of the organization of protests that may hinder production in areas.

The governor effectively becomes the representative of the president of the republic and the main overseer of security. This is a legal precedent because the constitution of the second republic does not grant the president absolute executive power like it was in the past, explained Ayadh bin Ashour, a legal professor.

The president cannot grant official jurisdiction that violates the 2014 constitution, he said.

In a related development, Defense Minister Farhat al-Harshany appeared before the parliamentary security and defense council to explain President Beji Caid Essebsi’s decision to task the military to protect natural resources facilities against protests.

The opposition had accused governing bodies of “militarizing power generation facilities.”

The parliamentary panel had requested clarifications over the measures that the Defense Ministry is seeking to carry out at these sites.

Unrest Death Toll Rises as Looting Ravages Venezuela

The toll from unrest in more than a month of anti-government protests in Venezuela rose to at least 36 on Friday as looting broke out in impoverished cities and the opposition geared up for more demonstrators.

Hecder Lugo Perez, 22, died on Friday after he was hit in the head by a projectile in the northwestern city of Valencia a day earlier, sources at the Valles de San Diego medical clinic said.

Four other protesters were injured in the same incident.

The state prosecutor’s office, which keeps an official count of deaths since protests began last month, said another 717 people have been injured and 152 are still in jail from the hundreds rounded up in widespread unrest around the volatile South American nation of 30 million people.

Mass protests erupted on April 1 by demonstrators demanding elections to remove President Nicolas Maduro. They blame him for an economic crisis that has caused shortages of food, medicine and other basics.

Anger boiled over Friday in the western municipality of Rosario de Perija, where young protesters burned, pulled down and then smashed a statue of late leader Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s late predecessor and mentor.

Looting broke out this week in cities such as Valencia, which looked like a disaster zone with bars on shop windows bent and windows broken.

Residents were stockpiling food, water and fuel. At least 70 stores have been raided since Tuesday, the Valencia chamber of commerce said.

Maduro is resisting opposition demands for elections and each side accuses the other of using armed groups to sow violence in the demonstrations.

Maduro has the public backing of the military high command, which analysts say is key to resisting the protests.

However, senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles said on Friday that 85 mid-ranking army officers have been detained for opposing moves to crack down on protesters.

He cited information he said was given by the officers’ families.

Vowing to stay in the streets for as long as necessary, Maduro’s opponents called for women to march nationwide on Saturday dressed in white, a traditional show of defiance against what they brand a repressive government.

“The regime is falling,” said Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, outside the prison near Caracas where she was demanding to see her husband.

“It has no strength and is showing its worst side, using weapons because it is does not have right on its side.”

The celebrity Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, added his voice to calls for an end to the violence on Thursday.

He called for Maduro to “listen to the voice of the Venezuelan people”, in a message posted on Facebook.

Kremlin Censures Planned Russian Protests, Outlaws Khodorkovsky NGOs

The Kremlin said on Thursday that an opposition protest planned for Saturday was illegal and police would deal with anyone who showed up accordingly.

The Open Russia foundation, an organization set up by Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has called for big anti-government protests on Saturday ahead of a presidential election next year.

“We are still hearing calls for illegal action,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.
“This will naturally lead to an absolutely lawful reaction from the authorities in accordance with current legislation.”

Open Russia hopes the protest will put pressure on Vladimir Putin, who is expected to run for what would be a fourth presidential term next year, to leave politics.

In a statement on Wednesday, the General Prosecutor’s Office said it had decided that the activity of the Open Russia foundation, which it called a British organization, was “undesirable” in Russia.

More so, Russia on Wednesday banned three organizations associated with former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, branding them “undesirable” for allegedly seeking to stir unrest and discredit elections.

OR (Otkrytaya Rossia), the Institute of Modern Russia and the Open Russia Civic Movement have been recognized as “undesirable” by the Prosecutor General in line with a controversial Russian law that targets foreign groups accused of political meddling.

Entities put on the “undesirable” list are banned from issuing any publications in Russia and risk having their bank accounts blocked, while people cooperating with them could be hit with fines, jail time and Russian entry bans.

Khodorkovsky, who owned Yukos oil giant before he was convicted in two controversial cases, now lives abroad but Open Russia maintains an office and a popular website in Russia.

Venezuela Braces for New Protest as Death Toll Rises

Venezuela braced for new marches Saturday against President Nicolas Maduro, after the death toll climbed to 20 in three weeks of violence, the result of a crisis sparked by demands for the leftist leader’s ouster.

The last protests, on Thursday, descended into a night of riots and looting that left 12 people dead in Caracas.

The opposition called for protesters to dress in white and march in silence on Saturday to the Catholic Church’s episcopal seats nationwide in a show of condemnation of Maduro’s government.

It will be a test of the authorities’ tolerance for peaceful protests, after days of running battles pitting riot police and pro-government vigilantes against protesters hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.

After Saturday’s show of silent defiance, the center-right opposition plans to return to a more confrontational strategy on Monday, when it is calling for Venezuelans to block roads in a bid to grind the country to a halt.

The government accuses the opposition of hiring armed agitators to sow violence, while the opposition says the government is repressing protesters and hiring thugs.

Vice President Tareck El Aissami accused the opposition of sponsoring a “spiral of terrorism” to trigger a coup.

Senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles fired back that the government’s “savage repression” was causing the violence.

Protesters blame Maduro for an economic crisis marked by severe shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.

Maduro says the protests against him are part of a US-backed coup plot.

Pressure on the socialist president has been mounting since 2014, as falling prices for Venezuela’s crucial oil exports have sent the once-booming economy into a tailspin.

The crisis escalated on March 30, when the Supreme Court moved to seize the powers of the legislature, the only lever of state authority not controlled by Maduro and his allies.

The court partly backtracked after an international outcry. But tension only increased when the authorities slapped a political ban on Capriles on April 7.

The opposition is demanding elections to exit the crisis.

As tensions mount, the government is using its almost-complete control of Venezuela’s institutions to pursue its opponents. On Wednesday alone, 565 protesters were arrested nationwide, according to Penal Forum, a local group that provides legal assistance to detainees. It said 334 remained in jail Thursday.