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Venezuela Top Court Orders Jailing of Opposition Mayor Muchacho

FILE - Chacao's Mayor Ramon Muchacho speaks next to other opposition mayor during a press conference at the Bolivar square in the Chacao neighborhood in Caracas, on May 25, 2017.

Venezuela's Supreme Court on Tuesday sentenced Caracas district mayor Ramon Muchacho to 15 months in jail for defying orders to keep transit moving in an area routinely blocked and barricaded by anti-government demonstrations.

The court said in a statement that its Constitutional Chamber ordered Muchacho's immediate arrest and dismissal from his post as mayor of the Caracas district of Chacao.

Muchacho was ruled to be in contempt of court for not having obeyed an order to ensure freedom of movement in his district, the epicenter of daily protests against leftist President Nicolas Maduro.

"We are being condemned for doing our job, for guaranteeing the legitimate right to peaceful protest and the right of all Venezuelans to exercise their civil and political rights," wrote Muchacho in an email message that he sends to subscribers each morning. "The coming hours will be difficult for me."

Muchacho did not attend the hearings, and his location was not immediately evident.

He said in his message that his communications would be "severely limited." The ruling prohibited Muchacho, a member of the opposition First Justice party, from leaving the country.

The order to jail Muchacho comes just days after the opening of a legislative superbody called the constituent assembly that Maduro promises will bring peace to the country but the opposition says is aimed at consolidating a dictatorship.

More than 120 people have died in political unrest since the protests began in April.

The Supreme Court has issued injunctions against nearly a dozen mayors of opposition municipalities ordering them to prevent protesters from setting up barricades and to remove them if they are put in place.

Critics say such cases are a violation of due process rights that are meant to punish adversaries of the ruling Socialist Party. They say the Supreme Court is stacked with Maduro

The top court is hearing a similar case against the mayor of another Caracas district, David Smolansky of El Hatillo.

Intelligence agents last month arrested Alfredo Ramos, the mayor of the city of Barquisimeto, on accusations that he violated the same order.

Chacao is a wealthy district of Caracas and one of the five municipalities of Venezuela's capital.

Its residents have historically been ardently opposed to the leftist government.

Chacao developed the reputation as a center for anti-government protests in the early 2000s during the rule of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.