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Venezuelan authorities arrest campaign staffers of opposition candidate in alleged violent plot

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s top prosecutor on Wednesday announced arrest warrants for the presidential campaign manager of opposition powerhouse María Corina Machado and eight other staffers, accusing them involvement in a violent anti-government conspiracy.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab said in a nationally televised news conference that campaign manager Magalli Meda and the other Machado staffers were accused of being part of a “destabilizing” plot that included demonstrations, a media campaign and plans to attack military barracks.

Two of the staffers, including political coordinator Dignora Hernández, already were arrested Wednesday, Saab said, but Meda had not yet been detained.

A person familiar with Hernández identified her as the woman seen in a video circulating on social media in Venezuela in which she screams “Help! Help, please! No!” while at least three uniformed officers try to wrestle her into the back of an SUV. The person asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

Saab said the warrants stemmed from what he called a confession by another Machado staff member, Emill Brandt, who was detained earlier this month and whose attorney, Omar Mora, told The Associated Press he has been denied legal counsel of his choice.

Machado, who has insisted on pressing forward with her campaign despite an administrative ban on her holding office, accused the government of unleashing “brutal repression against my campaign teams.”

The announcement of the arrest warrants came hours after an independent panel of experts investigating human rights violations in Venezuela told the U.N. Human Rights Council that the government of President Nicolás Maduro had increased repression efforts against real or perceived opponents ahead of this year's presidential election.

“The mission confirms that, as has happened in the past, the authorities invoke real or fictitious conspiracies to intimidate, detain and prosecute people who oppose or criticize the government,” panel head Marta Valiñas told the council, which authorized the investigative mission.

“At the same time, the Attorney General’s Office continues to operate as part of the government’s repressive machinery to grant the appearance of legality to the persecution of critical voices," Valiñas said in Geneva.

Machado last year overwhelmingly won a primary election held by an opposition faction. But the country’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice in January affirmed an administrative order barring the former lawmaker from holding public office for 15 years.

Machado, however, has continued her campaign, rejecting calls from inside and outside Venezuela to exit the race in time for another candidate to build up a viable campaign.

At a news conference Wednesday, she again sidestepped questions about her next steps, only broadly saying her campaign will keep organizing and expects “much more than just well wishes” from the international community.

“This is not a sign of strength but of profound weakness because... they know that we are stronger with each passing day,” Machado said, referring to the government. “If the regime believes that with these actions they are going to isolate me, let me be clear: my team is Venezuela.”

She called Saab “the prosecutor of terror” and said all the allegations against her staffers are false.

In October, representatives of Maduro and the opposition’s Unitary Platform coalition agreed to work toward electoral conditions that would allow a more level playing field. The deal, signed in the Caribbean island of Barbados and blessed by the U.S. government, called for the presidential election to take place in the second half of the year, extend invitations to international electoral observers and allow parties to choose their candidates so long as they comply with the law.

The agreement earned Maduro relief from some economic sanctions on the oil, gas and mining industries. But the U.S. government already reversed part of the relief over what it considers Maduro’s noncompliance with the agreement.

Brian Nichols, U.S. assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, in a tweet Wednesday condemned the arrests and warrants against the members of the opposition.

“Maduro’s escalating attacks on civil society and political actors are totally inconsistent with Barbados Accord commitments but will not stifle the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people,” he tweeted. “We call for the immediate release of these individuals and all those unjustly detained.”

The election is scheduled for July 28. The candidate registration period runs from March 21-25.

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