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Jailed Venezuelan opposition leader formally charged with inciting violence

- Associated Press - Friday, April 4, 2014

CARACAS, Venezuela — Jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was formally charged Friday for allegedly inciting violence at an anti-government protest that kicked off 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.

Maduro's opponents vowed to march through Caracas Friday to demand Lopez's freedom, gathering at the same plaza where the 42-year-old former mayor dramatically surrendered to authorities on Feb. 18 surrounded by a sea of supporters.

Prosecutors say Lopez was behind the deadly violence that followed a peaceful march on 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.

The unrest has so far led to at least 35 deaths, most of them after Lopez was arrested.

Critics of Maduro's socialist administration say the charismatic conservative leader is being held on trumped-up charges. Courts have denied his request to be freed ahead of his trial.

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