(CNSNews.com) – The head of the Venezuelan Supreme Court, a body which critics say is dominated by Maduro regime loyalists, has lashed out at Vice President Mike Pence for warning that the U.S. will hold all of its magistrates accountable if the court “does not return to its constitutional mandate to uphold the rule of law.”
Maikel Moreno told the state-run Venezolana de Televisión network that Pence’s comments were “disrespectful” and “despicable,” and a bid to compel the court to support the “coup” attempt led by opposition leader Juan Guaido.
“We categorically and forcefully reject the threat made by Mike Pence, who in a disrespectful and interfering manner intends to subject the Venezuelan judicial authorities to threats that violate the principles of independence of self-determination and sovereignty,” the Agencia Venezolana de Noticias state news agency quoted him as saying.
Moreno said the remarks amounted to an “ultimatum that the Supreme Court should stand aside from democracy and favor a coup d’état.”
Pence, he continued, sought “to place the nation at the service of the imperial interests of the warlike government in the White House.”
“This unlawful, despicable, intolerable action violates the norms and principles of international law that govern relations between civilized nations.”
Addressing the Washington Conference on the Americans at the State Department on Tuesday, Pence warned that while the administration’s approach to Nicolás Maduro’s regime has been tough, it could – as President Trump has said – get “a lot tougher.”
Then he turned his focus onto the court.
“The Supreme Court was established to protect individual rights and the rule of law and, sadly, of late, it has become a political tool for a regime that usurps democracy, indicts political prisoners, and promotes authoritarianism,” he said.
“It is time for the Supreme Court in Venezuela to return to its founding purpose,” Pence continued.
“If the Supreme Court of Venezuela does not return to its constitutional mandate to uphold the rule of law, the United States of America will hold all 25 of its magistrates accountable for their actions.”
The U.S. rejects the “coup” terminology used by Moreno and others to describe Guaido’s actions, determining that it is Maduro, not Guaido, whose position is illegitimate under Venezuela’s national constitution.
Along with more than 50 other countries, the U.S. recognizes Guaido, the head of the elected National Assembly, as Venezuela’s interim president pending new elections.
When Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace used the word “coup” during an interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week, Pompeo called him out.
“There can’t be a ‘coup’ led by Juan Guaido,” he said. “He is the elected leader of Venezuela, duly elected through their constitutional process, so there couldn’t have been a coup there.”
On April 30, Guaido in a dramatic dawn message attempted to provoke a military uprising, urging citizens and members of the armed forces to support him in ending Maduro’s “usurpation” of power.
Moreno was one of the three senior Venezuelan figures whom National Security Advisor John Bolton publicly named that day as having “agreed that Maduro had to go,” effectively challenging them to act on private pledges to cross over to Guaido.
Neither Moreno nor the other two Bolton named – Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez and presidential guard commander Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala – did so, however. Padrino in particular has made clear his ardent loyalty to Maduro repeatedly since then.
One senior regime figure who did publicly withdraw his support for Maduro was former Venezuelan intelligence service chief Gen. Manuel Cristopher Figuera. Maduro dismissed him on May 1.
Like Moreno, Padrino and Hernandez, Cristopher was targeted for U.S. sanctions – in his case announced last February by the U.S. Treasury Department, which cited opposition allegations of links to torture and mass human rights violations.
In his speech Tuesday, however, Pence announced that because of Cristopher’s “recent actions in support of democracy and the rule of law,” the sanctions were being lifted with immediate effect.
Known by its Spanish acronym TSJ, the Supreme Court’s independence has been called into question increasingly over recent years as it has sided repeatedly with the regime, nullifying legislation passed by the opposition-led National Assembly.
(The court comprises 32 magistrates, although the Treasury Department in 2017 sanctioned Moreno and seven of the court’s members, which may account for Pence’s reference to 25 magistrates.)
According to Freedom House, Venezuela’s judicial branch was politicized under former President Hugo Chavez, and the process went further under Maduro.
In late 2015, before the opposition-controlled National Assembly took office, the outgoing legislature – which was controlled by Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) – “stacked the TSJ with its own appointees.”
Later, the pro-Maduro National Constituent Assembly installed more regime loyalists on the court, according to Freedom House, “solidifying the judiciary’s alignment with the executive branch.”
On April 1 this year, Moreno called for Guaido’s parliamentary immunity to be revoked.