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Venezuelan politicians resort to virtual lawmaking

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, waves as he arrives at the National Constituent Assembly's building during the celebration rally of the 20th anniversary of the Venezuelan Constitution in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, waves as he arrives at the National Constituent Assembly's building during the celebration rally of the 20th anniversary of the Venezuelan Constitution in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

CARACAS – Opposition lawmakers in Venezuela who say they fear persecution by President Nicolas Maduro's government can now cast their votes though the cloud, the National Assembly decided Tuesday.

The opposition-led congress adopted a rules change that allows its members to virtually cast their votes and participate in debates. They can now participate in sessions from outside Venezuela or domestically without revealing their location.

It precedes a key vote on Jan. 5, when members of the National Assembly will decide whether opposition leader Juan Guaido will remain head of the body, allowing him to continue to claim to be interim president of Venezuela in his bid to oust Maduro.

Lawmakers loyal to Maduro walked out of the debate. They called the measure unconstitutional, vowing to take their case to the country's Supreme Court, which is stacked with the socialist president's allies. The pro-Maduro politicians said the change protects “fugitives of justice."

The change stems from a struggle for control of Venezuela between Maduro and Guaido, who launched a campaign early this year with U.S. backing seeking to remove the leader and end the nation's political confrontation.

Guaido, who presides over the National Assembly, said the measure will help the opposition “rebuild the republic" in the face of Maduro's administration, which he said seeks to dismantle the only branch of government not under the leader's control.

A day earlier, the National Constituent Assembly, a rival legislative body that Maduro's government formed to circumvent the opposition-led congress, stripped four lawmakers of parliamentary protection from prosecution.

The Supreme Court then opened a case filed against the lawmakers, bringing to 23 the number of opposition lawmakers who have been charged with crimes this year.

Of 112 deputies belonging to opposition parties, roughly 30 have fled the country, or they have sought refuge inside foreign embassies in Caracas, fearing criminal prosecution and jail.

Among the targeted politicians is Edgar Zambrano, the assembly's No. 2 official, who was arrested earlier this year by heavily armed officers from the intelligence police that surrounded his car outside his political party headquarters. They towed Zambrano to jail when he refused to step out. He was released four months later.