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Venezuelan opposition leader due in court over violence charges

© Photo: AFP

Video by FRANCE 24

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-02-20

After spending the night in a military jail, Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez waited to learn on Wednesday if he will be charged for violence during protests that have revitalised challenges to 15 years of socialist rule.

Lopez was due to appear before a judge in a closed hearing a day after dramatically surrendering to authorities before thousands of cheering supporters. He was expected to learn what charges he would face for organising mass demonstrations that have resulted in at least six deaths and more than 100 injuries over the past week.

The government of President Nicolas Maduro has accused 42-year-old Lopez, the leader of the Popular Will party, of attempting to instigate a coup in the South American nation.

Authorities have said he could face charges that include homicide and causing grievous bodily harm. But a judicial official told AP that prosecutors were leaning toward discarding homicide and terrorism charges, opting instead to pursue less serious counts such as arson and incitement to commit crimes.

That would allow the possibility of Lopez being released pending trial, according to the official, who wished to remain anonymous because the decision had not been made public.

Hundreds of supporters waited outside the courthouse for news of the decision, watched over by National Guard troops. Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, a member of a different opposition party, showed up at one point in a sign of unity among the foes of the Maduro government.

“We are all united in demanding the release of Leopoldo Lopez,” Ledezma told the AP. “We are rallying behind him.”

The opposition has planned nationwide marches for Saturday to protest both his detention as well as the rampant crime, shortages of consumer goods and inflation rate of more than 50 percent that has made life difficult for many in the country of nearly 30 million people.

'Politically motivated'

Maduro accused Lopez of leading a “fascist” plot to oust the socialist government, the political legacy of the late Hugo Chavez.

Lopez surrendered theatrically on Tuesday, dressed in white to signify peace, adorned with a crucifix from his wife and surrounded by a sea of supporters.

Since the latest unrest began a week ago, six people have died – two supporters of the government and four backers of the opposition, including one 17-year-old struck and killed by a car at a rally on Tuesday.

Human rights groups have condemned the charges against Lopez, with Amnesty International and others saying they appear to be politically motivated.

Secretary of State John Kerry earlier warned that arresting him would have a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression.

Some Venezuelans say attracting attention was Lopez’s plan all along, with the charismatic, Harvard-educated leader seeking to catapult past Capriles and lead the charge against the government.

But his fiery rhetoric and elite background – he studied economics in the US on a swimming scholarship and speaks fluent English – make him an improbable figure to build bridges with the poor Venezuelans who elected Maduro and who, while increasingly dissatisfied with his handling of the economy, jealously guard their social gains under Chavez.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

Date created : 2014-02-20

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