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Leopoldo Lopez, Venezuela's opposition leader

© AFP | Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez displays the Venezuelan national flag as he greets supporters gathering outside his house in Caracas, after he was released from prison and placed under house arrest for health reasons, on July 8, 2017.

CARACAS (AFP) - 

Leopoldo Lopez, who was placed under house arrest Saturday after more than three years in prison, heads the radical wing of the Venezuelan opposition.

The 46-year-old economist with a master's degree from Harvard University was sentenced in 2015 to nearly 14 years in jail for inciting violence in protests against the government of Nicolas Maduro that left 43 dead and about 3,000 wounded between February and May 2014.

He had been held since February 2014.

Lopez, who forged his career as an opponent of late president Hugo Chavez (1999-2013), returned to his home in Caracas with his wife Lilian Tintori and his two children.

The Supreme Court had cited "health reasons" for the order moving Lopez to house arrest.

The move comes amid a wave of demonstrations against the leftist Maduro government that have left at least 91 dead since April 1.

Non-governmental group Foro Penal says 433 political prisoners remain in Venezuela's jails. The government insists they are in locked up for acts of violence.

Lopez's transfer to house detention adds yet another layer to Venezuela's ongoing crisis.

Former Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero visited Lopez in prison several times, most recently June 4, accompanied by then Venezuelan foreign minister Delcy Rodriguez and her brother, ruling party politician Jorge Rodriguez.

On that occasion, Lopez called on Venezuelans to continue protesting in the streets.

His wife denied the meeting was to negotiate his house arrest in return for a defusing of the protests.

- 'The exit' -

As mayor of Chacao (2000-2008), one of the wealthiest subdivisions of the capital Caracas, Lopez was seen as a dynamic, efficient leader and polls placed him well to run as a presidential candidate. But he was politically disqualified twice.

In 2014, his strategy dubbed "the exit" that sought Maduro's resignation under pressure from massive street demonstrations that degenerated into violence put Lopez on the map internationally.

Accompanied by a crowd and media hype that only gained him further notoriety, Lopez surrendered to the authorities on February 18, 2014 after an arrest warrant was issued.

In his trademark provocative style, Lopez addressed Maduro via Twitter after the warrant, saying: "Don't you have the guts to arrest me? Or are you waiting for orders from Havana? I tell you, the truth is on our side."

- 'I am innocent' -

In that same vein, Lopez proclaimed his innocence at the closed-door hearing to which the press had no access, according to members of his Popular Will party.

"If the sentence condemns me, you will be more afraid to read it than I will be to hear it, because you know that I'm innocent," Lopez defiantly told the judge, according to David Smolansky, a Caracas neighborhood mayor who was at the hearing.

Lopez had been serving his sentence at the Ramo Verde military prison on the outskirts of Caracas.

During his incarceration, he went on hunger strike and the 2014 protests highlighted marked differences between Lopez and other members of the opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable, MUD, especially Henrique Capriles, whom Maduro narrowly defeated in 2013 presidential elections.

Capriles distanced himself from the demonstrations, pushing instead for people to turn out at the polls and asking Lopez to end his hunger strike.

© 2017 AFP