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Fiery Protest Leader Leopoldo Lopez Faces 13-Year Sentence in Venezuela

The polarizing figurehead of Venezuela's opposition, Lopez was sentenced Thursday for conspiracy and inciting violence. Last year's clashes during anti-government protests left 43 people dead.

by Alicia Hernández
Sep 11 2015, 5:35pm

Photo by Alejandro Cegarra/AP File

In February 2014, the Venezuelan politician Leopoldo Lopez led an opposition protest movement propelled in part by exhaustion with soaring crime, shortages, and inflation under the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

The protests were meant to be peaceful — even Lopez supporters point out he implored his followers to not "fall into confrontation." But pro-government gangs were accused of firing on demonstrators, and in the clashes and melees that followed for months, 43 people were killed.

Lopez turned himself in to Maduro's government and was jailed shortly after the protests began, saying he had "nothing to hide."

Late on Thursday, a Venezuelan judge sentenced him to 13 years, nine months, and seven days behind bars on charges of inciting violence, conspiracy, arson, and damage to public property.

Opposition figures, the United States, and international human-rights bodies immediately decried the sentence, while government voices including the country's minister of penitentiaries scoffed that the sentence was a "bargain" for "the monster of Ramo Verde," in reference to the military prison where Lopez is jailed.

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Lopez, 44, is a polarizing and fiery figure in Venezuelan politics. With telegenic looks and a Harvard degree, he's managed to rally ardent opposers to the socialist government structures built up by the late former president Hugo Chavez.

Many of the problems the socialist system confronted during Chavez's years in office extended or worsened in the term of his hand-picked successor and former vice president, Maduro.

Venezuela has the highest rate of inflation in the world. Caracas is called the world's most violent city. Shortages of many basic goods — milk, toilet paper, medication and medical supplies — are now commonplace.

Related: Basic Medications and Breast Implants in Short Supply in Deepening Venezuela Crisis

Supporters of Leopoldo Lopez gathered at Plaza Jose Martí on Friday in anticipation of a speech by his wife, Lilian Tintori. (Photo by Alicia Hernández/VICE News)

Venezuela's government is accused by Amnesty International of carrying out a range of human-rights abuses during the government crackdown on the protests, including arbitrary detention and torture.

"[Lopez's sentence] is terrible, because the ones who should be locked up are many people in this government," Germán, a barber in a middle-class district of Caracas, told VICE News on Friday morning. "This is a government of outlaws, of criminals."

At a fast-food street stall in the western part of the city, vendor Carlos Mendez called the sentence "just," a sign of the deep political rifts that exist in Venezuela's society.

"Justice can't be wrong," Mendez said. "Leopoldo is guilty because he incited hate and crime. He didn't fire, sure, but he helped make the people go crazy."

The sentencing also came as Venezuelans prepare for congressional elections this December. Venezuela's opposition, although frequently divided, has hopes to capture the Congress, analysts say, and maybe free Lopez and others whom they dub political prisoners.

"Many say that history repeats itself, and that Leopoldo will be president," said Leonardo Riera, a pharmacy worker, in reference to a maxim that says future presidents in Venezuela at some point face jail time, as Chavez did.

"And I believe it," Riera added.

Related: Venezuela Denies 'Psychological Torture' Led Protester to Kill Himself in Prison

Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City contributed to this report.