independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Venezuela waits for news of Lopez

A demonstrator raises his arms toward the Bolivarian National Police (BNP) firing tear gas and a water canon in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela (AP)

Held at a military jail, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez waited to learn if he will be charged for violence that has erupted during protests in Venezuela.

The demonstrations have revitalised challenges to 15 years of socialist rule in the oil-rich nation.

Mr Lopez dramatically surrendered to authorities before thousands of cheering supporters on Tuesday.

He was due to appear before a judge 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 hearing was closed and the outcome had not been announced by late yesterday as sporadic protests continued to erupt throughout the capital, with protesters setting fires in the streets and police firing volleys of tear gas and blasts from water cannons.

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

The authorities had said he could face charges that include murder and causing grievous bodily harm.

A judicial official said that prosecutors were leaning toward discarding murder and terrorism charges, opting instead to pursue less serious counts such as arson and incitement to commit crimes.

That would allow the possibility of Mr Lopez being released pending trial, according to the official.

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 enemies of the Maduro government.

"We are all united in demanding the release of Leopoldo Lopez," he said. "We are rallying behind him."

The crowd dissipated after hours of waiting when officials decided to hold the court hearing at the military jail outside Caracas where Mr Lopez was being detained.

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

The jailing of Mr Lopez has made him a cause celebre among opponents of Mr Maduro, eclipsing to some degree Henrique Capriles, the opposition's two-time losing presidential candidate who was building support for another challenge in two years.

Mr Capriles attended a rally on February 12 in Caracas led by Mr Lopez but did not appear on the stage to address the masses of demonstrators.

Clashes with police erupted afterwards, after the opposition leaders had left, and resulted in three deaths.

In Twitter messages, he accused the government yesterday of infiltrating opposition demonstrations to provoke violence.

Mr Maduro accused Mr Lopez of leading a "fascist" plot to oust the socialist government, the political legacy of the late Hugo Chavez, and authorities issued an arrest warrant for him.

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

"If my jailing serves to awaken a people, serves to awaken Venezuela ... then it will be well worth the infamous imprisonment imposed upon me directly, with cowardice," he shouted from on top of a statue of 19th century Cuban independence hero Jose Marti in a Caracas plaza.

Much of the capital shut down afterwards, fearing violent clashes, but the violence occurred in Valencia, the third largest city, where National Guard troops fired rubber bullets and unknown gunman on motorcycles fired live rounds at protesters.

Genesis Carmona, a 22-year-old university student who had been Miss Tourism 2013 for the state of Carabobo, was struck in the head and killed by a bullet, a death that reverberated in a country that prizes beauty queens.

In southern Bolivar state yesterday, gunman firing from a rooftop at a pro-government demonstration killed one person and wounded four, Governor Francisco Rangel Gomez said.

Mr Maduro, in a nationally televised cabinet meeting, showed videos of opposition protesters damaging property and setting fires and vowed to crack down on them.

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 Mr Lopez, with Amnesty International and others saying they appear to be politically motivated.

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

AP

Press Association

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