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Venezuelan hardliner to remain jailed during trial

June 5, 2014

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A prominent leader of Venezuela’s opposition, whose arrest has drawn international condemnation, will remain in jail as he awaits trial on charges of inciting violence at anti-government demonstrations.

A judge’s ruling before dawn Thursday followed marathon deliberations lasting three days in which Leopoldo Lopez’s attorneys argued that the former mayor was being hounded for his political beliefs.

Lopez, 43, is the combative head of the Popular Will party. Before turning himself in to authorities in February, he had been spearheading a movement to force President Nicolas Maduro’s resignation.

Authorities ordered his arrest after three people were killed February 12 during clashes between security forces and anti-government protesters that took place after peaceful demonstrations ended. At least 42 people have been killed on both sides in three months of unrest.

If convicted, the Harvard University-educated politician could face up to more than 13 years in jail. The trial is expected to begin in August, his lawyers said.

Maduro’s arrest of his opponents has drawn widespread criticism abroad, with Amnesty International calling the charges against Lopez a “politically motivated attempt to silence dissent” at a time of mounting frustration with 57 percent inflation and record food shortages.

A report Thursday by the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists described cases of arbitrary detentions and intimidation of student protesters and political leaders that point to a lack of independence for judges and prosecutors.

Supporters on Thursday read a letter from Lopez written by hand from the courthouse in which he accused the judge presiding over his case of “selling her conscience to the corrupt powers.” In a similarly defiant tone, allies called for a mass demonstration Sunday in the same Caracas plaza where Lopez in February emerged from days of hiding to turn himself into authorities after delivering a fiery speech to a huge crowd.

Referring to Lopez as a “prisoner of conscience,” David Smolansky, they mayor of Caracas’ El Hatillo district, said the jailed activist’s “only crime is thinking differently.”

Each day of the preliminary hearing began for Lopez around 4 am, when he was woken in his cell at a military prison outside Caracas and taken under heavy police escort to a downtown courtroom, where proceedings lasted late into the night. Journalists and Lopez’s wife were barred from attending the hearing.

Even as the government has been pressing its cases against Lopez, it has launched what appears to be a new legal battle against other opponents, including ousted lawmaker Maria Corina Machado.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz said Machado and two other opposition politicians had been summoned to testify in an investigation of an alleged US-backed plot to assassinate Maduro. Her attorney, Jose Amalio Graterol, said she was summoned as a witness. It wan’t clear from the attorney general’s remarks if she herself was under investigation.

On Thursday, officials announced they were also summoning former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Salas Romer and two others to testify in the case.

The government last week released what it said were recent e-mails by Machado in which she discusses the need to “annihilate” Maduro and boasts of having the support of a senior State Department official who is now the US ambassador to Colombia. Machado, who was stripped of her seat in Congress after denouncing Maduro at the Organization of American States, has denied the charges and said the government is fabricating evidence in a bid to intimidate her.

The Democratic Unity alliance, which in May froze talks with the government to ease tensions, has conditioned its return to the negotiating table on Lopez’s release.

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