Leopoldo López, the Venezuelan opposition leader detained for his role in last year’s national protests, was sentenced to 13 years in prison Thursday — a sentence that’s likely to exacerbate tensions in the troubled South American nation.
Judge Susana Barreiros found López guilty on all charges, including conspiracy, arson, damaging public property and inciting violence, according to reports from those present at the court.
Jesús Torrealba, the head of the MUD opposition coalition, said the harsh sentence seemed designed to push the country “toward violence.”
“This is not only an attack on liberty, justice, common sense and the separation of powers,” he said in a statement, “but it’s also a provocation of the Venezuelan people.”
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He called on supporters to express their discontent “peacefully” and “democratically.”
López’s lawyers are likely to appeal.
Earlier in the day, violence broke out around the courthouse as the politician’s supporters clashed with pro-government sympathizers and those who claimed to represent victims of last year’s protests. Videos showed the mobs shoving each other and swinging sticks.
López’s Voluntad Popular party said one of its members, Horacio Blanco, 72, died of a heart attack.
“This was an ambush,” Torrealba wrote on Twitter, calling Blanco’s death a “homicide.”
López, 44, is the former mayor of Chacao, a Caracas suburb, and a former presidential candidate. In polls, he ranks as one of the most popular politicians in the country.
Civil rights groups have called his 19-month trial a sham and said López was denied his basic rights as a defendant.
“This case is a complete travesty of justice,” Human Rights Watch Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco said in a statement. “In a country that lacks judicial independence, the fate of López is in the hands of a provisional judge whose ruling is based on a trial in which the prosecution did not present basic evidence linking him to a crime, and López was not allowed to properly defend himself.”
During his closing testimony Thursday, López intended to present an eight-minute video taken on the day of the demonstration. In it, he’s seen asking his followers to remain peaceful and ignore government provocations before heading home on the subway. Later that day, gunmen on motorcycles fired into a crowd of students killing one of them. It was that murder that sparked the ensuing violence, he suggested.
Even so, Voluntad Popular said the court denied him the right to show the video.
Last year’s demonstrations, which began over soaring crime and food shortages, went on for weeks and left more than 40 dead on both sides of the political divide. The government has accused López and other opposition leaders of using the demonstrations as cover for a coup or assassination plot.
On Thursday, the U.S. State Department confirmed that John Kerry had spoken to Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez this week. Among the issues they discussed were “concern with the imprisonment of individuals under political pretenses, including Leopoldo López, as well as the nature of Mr. López’s trial,” Spokesman John Kirby said.
In June, López went on a 30-day hunger strike demanding freedom for political prisoners, the end of government repression and international observation of December’s legislative race.
Now, his fate could be riding on those elections. The opposition hopes it can gain control of congress and, just perhaps, begin freeing people it considers political prisoners like López and Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma.
López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, was expected to address supporters late Thursday.