Venezuela: Leopoldo Lopez must stand trial, judge rules

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People walk past cardboard figures of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez with his mouth covered with the word "crime" during a gathering in support of him in Caracas on 4 June,, 2014Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Opposition activists have been demanding Mr Lopez's release since he was jailed almost four months ago

A Venezuelan judge has ordered opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez to stand trial on charges of instigating violence at an anti-government protest in February.

Mr Lopez of the Popular Will party has been in jail since he handed himself in to the authorities on 18 February.

The charges relate to demonstrations on 12 February, during which three people were killed.

If found guilty, Mr Lopez could face up to 10 years in jail.

Marathon session

Judge Adriana Lopez made the decision to send Mr Lopez for trial shortly after 03:00 (07:30 GMT) after a marathon session which had begun on Monday.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Mr Lopez's wife, Lilian Tintori, has been leading the campaign to free her husband

She said Mr Lopez would face charges of damaging property, arson and instigating violence.

Analysts had expected the decision but said they were surprised at the length of time it took the judge to reach it.

Supporters of Mr Lopez have always maintained that his detention and the charges against him are purely political.

Following the ruling, his party wrote on Twitter that "unfortunately, justice has not been done".

Protest and repression

The former mayor is one of the main leaders of the mass protests which have rocked Venezuela in recent months as hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans demand an end to extreme inflation, high crime rates and shortages of certain food staples.

Using social media, Mr Lopez founded a movement to advocate a change of government using the hashtag #lasalida, which in Spanish means both "the exit" and "the solution".

Media caption,

The moment when Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez handed himself in amidst large crowds

A total of 42 people, both supporters and opponents of the government, have died in the protest-related violence which followed.

The government of Nicolas Maduro has blamed Mr Lopez and his supporters for the violence, accusing them of trying to start a coup with the backing of the United States.

The opposition meanwhile accuses the government of suppressing freedom of expression and repressing peaceful protests.

A number of members of the security forces are under investigation for using excessive force.

Talks between the opposition and the government to end the protests are currently stalled, with the opposition demanding the release of all of those jailed during the protests.