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Leopoldo López trial begins in Venezuela

Lilian Tintori, wife of opposition leader Leopoldo López, stands next to a life-size cardboard cutout of her husband, outside the Justice Palace as the trial against López began, in Caracas, Venezuela, yesterday.
Defence claims it wasn’t allowed to present evidence; leader could face up to 13 years in prison

CARACAS — The trial against Venezuelan hardline opposition leader Leopoldo López, who is accused of inciting violence at anti-government protests, began yesterday in Caracas.

López could face up to 13 years in jail if convicted.

The opposition leader was arrested on February 18 after he spoke at a demonstration that turned violent and marked the start of three months of deadly street protests. While the protest movement has mostly died down, and opposition leaders have begun to fight among themselves, López has remained in a jail cell. Over the past five months, he has become a cause célébre for critics of Venezuela’s Socialist government.

In a press conference yesterday evening, President Nicolás Maduro told foreign correspondents that López “has to pay for his crimes” and accused him of being responsible for the “loss of life” during protests.

Since dawn yesterday, dozens of National Guard officers and riot police blocked access to the court where López was scheduled to appear. The trial was headed by judge Susana Barreiros.

“We are facing trial without being allowed to present evidence. How are we going to prove his innocence if this trial begins in a state of powerlessness?” Juan Carlos Gutiérrez, one of López defence attorneys, said in a phone interview with the AP.

Gutiérrez claimed that judge Barreiros rejected a recusal request made by the defence in a bid to delay trial until an Appeals Court rules on whether evidence should be admitted. He said the evidence includes footage of incidents that took place before February 12 and previous speeches by López.

“All the evidence presented by the Prosecutors’ office was admitted and they rejected everything provided by the defence,” he detailed.

In June, judge Adriana López determined — after a very long preliminary hearing that had been postponed for months — that the opposition leader would wait for his trial at the suburban prison of Ramo Verde and admitted the charges presented by the prosecution, including inciting violence and encouraging demonstrators to vandalize government buildings.

At the time, López said that the judge had “sold her conscience to corrupt power.”

López’s lawyers say that, during the June hearing, the prosecution failed to show any evidence to link the opposition leader to the violent incidents of February 12, when three people were killed and dozens injured during anti-government demonstrations in Caracas.

At least 43 people died during the three months of protests that followed.

López and former lawmaker María Corina Machado — who was stripped of her seat in March — represent the more radical line of the Venezuelan opposition. Prior to the violence in February, the two leaders spearheaded a campaign under the slogan “The Exit,” intended to force Maduro to resign.

Their bloc of hardliners has opposed dialogue with the government and has slammed the more moderate MUD for engaging in negotiations with the Socialist administration in a bid to put an end to months of violent demonstrations. The talks were eventually called off by the opposition coalition, which accused the government of the failure.

Moderate opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said yesterday that “none of the differences we might have will be more important than our hopes for unity, freedom, justice, progress and change.”

“The first measure the judge should decide today is his (López’s) freedom,” he added on Twitter.

Telesur in English

In separate news, the Spanish-language television network started by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as a vehicle for promoting in Latin America his leftist brand of political change will now reach audiences in English.

Under the motto “Don’t resign yourself to having just one side of the story,” Telesur has unveiled a news website that will serve as a hub for multimedia programming in English.

— Herald with AP, online media

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