- The Washington Times - Friday, September 11, 2015

A Venezuelan judge on Thursday ordered opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez jailed for almost 14 years, convicting him of inciting violence during bloody protests against the government last year.

Following what many say was a rigged trial, the judge handed down the maximum sentence, despite U.S. calls for Lopez‘ release, The Associated Press reported.

Lopez has repeatedly denied the charges and says he only urged peaceful demonstrations against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

More than 40 people were killed during violent street protests against the socialist government in 2014.

Supporters of the 44-year-old, Harvard-educated former mayor of a wealthy Caracas district say the trial was riddled with irregularities. The court rejected all but two defense witnesses, both of whom ultimately declined to testify, while allowing more than 100 witnesses for the prosecution, AP reported.

Additionally, the trial was mostly closed to the public, with Lopez sometimes refusing to attend out of protest.

Judge Susana Barreiros abruptly ended the proceedings last week even though many witnesses had yet to take the stand, Lopez’s lawyer said.

Lopez has spent the past 1½ years in a military prison outside Caracas where he will now complete the remainder of his sentence, AP reported.

In a statement Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the court’s decision raised “great concern about the political nature of the judicial process and verdict, and the use of the Venezuelan judicial system to suppress and punish government critics.”

U.S.-Venezuelan diplomatic ties have been strained by Mr. Maduro’s human-rights abuses, including the detainment of political prisoners such as Lopez.

Earlier this year the White House slapped visa restrictions on Venezuelan government officials believed to be associated with human rights abuses. Mr. Maduro, the successor and protege of the late populist leader Hugo Chavez, responded by publicly accusing Vice President Joseph R. Biden of plotting to overthrow him.

Under Mr. Maduro’s presidency, Venezuela’s economy has crumbled under a plunge in global oil prices, leading to shortages, massive inflation and an uptick in crime.

Venezuela will hold legislative elections in December, which the opposition is favored to win.

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