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Venezuelan Opposition Leader Leopoldo Lopez Appears in Court Over Protest Violence

Dozens died in riots that took country to the brink earlier this year; Maduro government has accused opposition of plotting his overthrow.

by Hannah Strange
Sep 11 2014, 1:32pm

Image via Getty

The Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez appeared in a court in Caracas on Thursday on charges of inciting violence over the wave of protests against the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro in which dozens of people were killed earlier this year.

Lopez, one of the more radical voices in the opposition coalition, has been held in a military jail since February, when he handed himself over to authorities seeking to arrest him on charges including terrorism and homicide. 

The more serious charges were later dropped, but Lopez could still face a lengthy jail term over his role in the protests, which demanded the departure of Maduro under the slogan "La Salida" (The Exit).

At least 40 people died in violent protests and rioting which wracked Caracas and other cities across Venezuela. San Cristobal, the Andean university town where the demonstrations began, was for a time transformed into a war zone with military jets buzzing overhead as the army was deployed to put down the unrest. 

Maduro accused Lopez and his followers of fomenting a coup d'etat against his government, with which the opposition has long had a tense relationship.

He denies all the charges and claims that government security forces and armed civilian militias known as colectivos were responsible for the violence.

Opposition figures regularly decry the leftist government as authoritarian and repressive, alleging human rights abuses and political imprisonment. 

It in turn brands the opposition as a fascist elite of "little Yankees" who want to monopolise power and Venezuela's vast oil wealth at the expense of its poor.

On Thursday dozens of supporters gathered outside the courthouse where Lopez appeared, chanting "No to dictatorship! and "Release Leopoldo!"

Further evidence against him was expected to be detailed later in the day's court session.

The youthful, telegenic opposition figure who heads the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party was once the leading hope against the socialist government during the reign of Maduro's predecessor, the controversial self-styled revolutionary Hugo Chavez.

But he was barred from standing as a presidential candidate when the government raised allegations of corruption against him. He has never been charged in that case. 

His appearance in court could provoke further unrest in the deeply polarized country, where raging insecurity, economic decay and corruption has stirred public anger.

On Wednesday, the government said official inflation had risen to 63.4 percent, one of the highest rates in the world. Analysts attribute the rocketing prices of goods - some of which have seen even higher rises - to dwindling production and a labyrinthine system of currency controls, which force the country to rely on imports bought with increasingly expensive black market dollars. Shortages of basic products are commonplace.  

The protests grew out of anger in San Cristobal over the authorities' failure to take action over the rape of a university student but soon spread across Venezuela, with several cities paralysed for months by burning barricades and nightly rioting. 

Many poorer Venezuelans however are still deeply devoted to the government due to its focus on social programmes and opposition to a traditional ruling class long neglectful of their interests. 

Follow Hannah Strange on Twitter: @hannahkstrange