LONDON- Britain has recognised Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country's president, the English High Court ruled on Thursday, in a case over whether Guaido or Nicolas Maduro should control $1 billion of its gold stored in London.
A four-day hearing last week had been the latest part of a tug-of-war over the gold reserves held in the Bank of England and centered on which of the two rival presidents Britain now views as Venezuela's legitimate leader.
In early 2019, the British government joined dozens of nations in backing Guaido, head of Venezuela's opposition-controlled congress, after he declared an interim presidency and denounced Maduro as an usurper who secured a fraudulent re-election.
High Court judge Nigel Teare handed down a judgment ruling that Britain had "unequivocally" recognised Guaido as constitutional interim president. Teare based his decision on the so-called "one voice" doctrine, in which the court must accept as conclusive an unequivocal statement by the British government recognizing the leader of a foreign nation.
"The judiciary and the executive must speak with one voice" Teare said. "There cannot be two Presidents of Venezuela."
Maduro's legal team has said his central bank (BCV) wants to sell the gold to fund Venezuela's response to the coronavirus. His central bank filed a suit against the Bank of England in May claiming it had barred access to Venezuela's gold reserves.
Sarosh Zaiwalla, one of the lawyers representing the Maduro camp, said on Thursday that the BCV would be seeking leave of the court to appeal the judgment.
The BCV on Twitter called the decision "absurd" for depriving Venezuela "of the gold it urgently needs to confront the pandemic".
If the BCV's appeal is granted the accelerated pace of the case means it could go to the London Court of Appeal in the coming weeks. If that appeal were to prove successful it would then go up the Supreme Court.
The opposition alleges Maduro wants to use the gold to pay off his foreign allies, which his lawyers have denied. Over the past two years, Maduro's government has removed some 30 tonnes from its reserves in Venezuela to sell abroad for much-needed hard currency.
"We have secured the gold for the future of the Venezuelan people," Guaido's ambassador in Britain, Vanessa Neumann, told Reuters.
A member of Guaido's legal team said they now expect the court to determine whether Guaido has the authority to represent Venezuela's central bank in another legal case to decide control over the gold itself.
(Reporting by Marc Jones and Angus Berwick; Additional reporting by Corina Pons in Caracas, Editing by Simon Jessop and Angus MacSwan) ((firstname.lastname@example.org; +44 (0)207 542 9033; Reuters Messaging: email@example.com Twitter @marcjonesrtrs))