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Venezuela opposition leader to face trial over demos

AFP , Thursday 5 Jun 2014
Cardboard figures of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez with his mouth covered with the word 'Crime' are seen during a gathering in support of him in Caracas June 4, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

A Venezuelan opposition leader has been ordered to stand trial on charges of instigating violence at an anti-government demonstration, prosecutors said Thursday.

A judge ruled that Leopoldo Lopez, who has been in custody for three months, should stand trial, the prosecutor's office said. Lopez is charged specifically over violence that broke out during a rally against the government of Nicolas Maduro on February 12.

Opponents of the leftist Maduro took to the streets in February to protest rampant crime, runaway inflation, a lack of economic opportunity and shortages of such basic goods as toilet paper in the country with the world's largest proven oil reserves.

A total of 42 people died in the protests, which went on for four months, although they have died down now to just sporadic assemblies of handfuls of protesters.

Lopez, a Harvard-educated economist aged 43, leads an opposition party called Popular Will. It is considered a hardline wing of an opposition umbrella grouping and pushed for Maduro to step down outright, whereas other factions just wanted economic and political reforms.

Lopez is charged specifically with instigating arson and property damage and with criminal association. If convicted he could be sentenced to 10 years in prison.

He was ordered to remain in custody pending the trial. No date for it was announced.

Four students were also ordered to stand trial.

The ruling came after a marathon hearing on Wednesday.

As the anti-government demos continued, one of the protesters' demands was Lopez's release and that of dozens of others arrested during the unrest.

Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, is the handpicked successor of populist firebrand Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer last year.

Maduro likened the protests to a coup designed to oust him.

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