CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was formally charged Friday with inciting violence at an anti-government protest that has been followed by weeks of unrest across Venezuela.
Chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz announced the charges a day before the legal deadline to make the case for keeping Lopez in custody. The Harvard-educated Lopez has become a cause celebre among opponents of President Nicolas Maduro during the month and a half he has spent in a military prison outside the capital.
Lopez’s Popular Will party responded with what it said would be a 24-hour protest to demand his freedom. Protesters gathered at the same plaza where the 42-year-old former mayor dramatically surrendered to authorities on Feb. 18 surrounded by a sea of supporters.
Lopez’s wife helped lead the rally that began Friday afternoon. The protest remained peaceful as night fell, with hundreds of police looking on.
The U.S. Embassy put out a release mentioning the rally and advising Americans to avoid protests and large gatherings and urging them to stay inside after nightfall.
The unrest has caused at least 39 deaths, including both anti- and pro-government activists as well as bystanders, according to official figures. Most of the deaths happened since Lopez was arrested.
Prosecutors say Lopez was behind the deadly violence that followed a peaceful march Feb. 12, saying he encouraged followers to set fire to and destroy public buildings. Maduro accused him of being the visible face of a U.S.-backed “fascist” conspiracy to topple his year-old administration.
If found guilty, Lopez could serve nearly 14 years in prison. It would be by far the longest sentence for an opposition leader since the protests began. The country’s high court sent two opposition mayors to jail last month for failing to remove road barricades put up by anti-government activists. One mayor was sentenced to a year while the other got 10 months.
Critics of Maduro’s socialist administration say the charismatic Lopez is being held on trumped-up charges. Courts have denied his request to be freed ahead of his trial.
Speaking in Caracas on Friday, Maduro said he would continue to take preventive action against those who plot his overthrow.
“Those who try to topple the government are prisoners now,” he said.
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