Venezuela awaits fate of opposition leader

ANDREW ROSATI BEN FOX Associated Press Published:

CARACAS, Venezuela -- After spending the night in a military jail, Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez waited to learn Wednesday if he will be charged for violence that has erupted during protests that have revitalized challenges to 15 years of socialist rule in the oil-rich nation.

Lopez was due to appear before a judge in a closed hearing a day after dramatically surrendering to authorities before thousands of cheering supporters Tuesday. He was expected to learn what charges he would face for organizing mass demonstrations that have resulted in at least six deaths and more than 100 injuries over the past week.

The government of President Nicolas Maduro has accused Lopez, a 42-year-old former mayor and the leader of the Popular Will party, of attempting to foment a coup in the South American nation and authorities had said he could face charges that include homicide and causing grievous bodily harm.

A judicial official told The Associated Press that prosecutors were leaning toward discarding homicide and terrorism charges, opting instead to pursue less serious counts such as arson and incitement to commit crimes. That would allow the possibility of Lopez being released pending trial, according to the official, who agreed to discuss the matter only if not quoted by name because the decision had not been made public.

Hundreds of supporters waited outside the courthouse for news of the decision, watched over by National Guard troops. Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, a member of a different opposition party, showed up at one point in a sign of unity among the foes of the Maduro government.

"We are all united in demanding the release of Leopoldo Lopez," Ledezma told the AP. "We are rallying behind him."

The crowd dissipated after hours of waiting when officials decided to hold the court hearing at the military jail outside Caracas where Lopez was being detained.

The opposition has planned nationwide marches for Saturday to protest both his detention as well as the rampant crime, shortages of consumer goods and inflation rate of more than 50 percent that has made life difficult for many in the country of nearly 30 million people.

The jailing of Lopez has made him a cause celebre among opponents of Maduro, eclipsing to some degree Henrique Capriles, the opposition's two-time losing presidential candidate who was building support for another challenge in two years.

Capriles attended a rally on Feb. 12 in Caracas led by Lopez but did not appear on the stage to address the masses of demonstrators. Clashes with police erupted afterward, after the opposition leaders had left, and resulted in three deaths.

Maduro accused Lopez of leading a "fascist" plot to oust the socialist government, the political legacy of the late Hugo Chavez, and authorities issued an arrest warrant for him. He surrendered theatrically on Tuesday, dressed in white to signify peace, adorned with a crucifix from his wife and surrounded by a sea of supporters.

"If my jailing serves to awaken a people, serves to awaken Venezuela ... then it will be well worth the infamous imprisonment imposed upon me directly, with cowardice," he shouted from atop a statue of 19th century Cuban independence hero Jose Marti in a Caracas plaza.

Much of the capital shut down afterward, fearing violent clashes, but the violence occurred in Valencia, the third largest city, where National Guard troops fired rubber bullets and unknown gunman on motorcycles fired live rounds at protesters. Genesis Carmona, a 22-year-old university student who had been Miss Tourism 2013 for the state of Carabobo, was struck in the head and killed by a bullet, a death that reverberated in a country that prizes beauty queens.

In southern Bolivar state on Wednesday, gunman firing from a rooftop at a pro-government demonstration killed one person and wounded four, Gov. Francisco Rangel Gomez said.

Since the latest unrest began a week ago, six people have died -- two supporters of the government and four backers of the opposition, including one 17-year-old struck and killed by a car at a rally Tuesday.

Human rights groups have condemned the charges against Lopez, with Amnesty International and others saying they appear to be politically motivated. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier warned that arresting him would have a "chilling effect" on freedom of expression.

Some Venezuelans say attracting attention was Lopez's plan all along, with the charismatic, Harvard-educated leader seeking to catapult past Capriles and lead the charge against the government.

But his fiery rhetoric and elite background -- he studied economics in the U.S. on a swimming scholarship and speaks fluent English -- make him an improbable figure to build bridges with the poor Venezuelans who elected Maduro and who, while increasingly dissatisfied with his handling of the economy, jealously guard their social gains under Chavez.

"The middle-class (protesters) on the street don't represent the masses," said Carlos Romero, a political scientist at Central University of Venezuela.

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Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Joshua Goodman contributed to this report.

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