Jailed Venezuelan opposition leader awaits appeal ruling


CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Jailed opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez angrily denounced Venezuela’s government on Saturday at an appeals hearing that his supporters are hopeful will overturn a nearly 14-year sentence for inciting violence.

A decision is expected within 10 days, according to Lopez’s party, although government officials have yet to comment.

Tension hung over the marathon proceedings, which ended after 2 a.m. local time, as dozens of Lopez supporters gathered outside the court house to demand his freedom as police in riot gear looked on warily. Inside the courtroom, Lopez angrily denied encouraging the use of violence during a wave of deadly anti-government protests in 2014 even while blasting President Nicolas Maduro.

“I’m innocent of the crimes for which I’ve been charged,” Lopez said at the trial, according to an audio recording released by his political party. But “I take responsibility for having denounced the Venezuelans government as corrupt, inefficient, anti-democratic and repressive.”

The conviction of Lopez, a Harvard-educated former mayor, has been widely condemned as a sham trial by foreign governments including the U.S.

One of the prosecutors, after fleeing to the U.S., said he was pressured by his superiors to produce an arrest warrant and this week the star witness in the case, a language expert, came forward to say that her testimony had been twisted to suggest Lopez’s fiery rhetoric was somehow a subliminal call for violent revolt.

“This is the opportunity to redeem yourselves and be at ease with your conscience, with justice, with your families and our country,” Franklin Nieves, the exiled prosecutor, said in video released this week addressing his former colleagues. “You know this trial was a farce.”

As Venezuela’s economy sinks deeper into a depression, and the opposition pushes for a recall referendum to cut short Maduro’s term, the government has been trying to lower tensions by inviting the opposition to talks aimed at resolving problems such as widespread food shortages.

Momentum toward some sort of dialogue has been building in recent days as the government quietly released around 20 activists detained since May and accepted an opposition proposal to invite the Vatican to play a mediating role.

The National Electoral Council has also taken steps to allow the recall referendum to go forward although the vote may not take place until 2017, which would be too late for new elections to be held should Maduro lose.

The main opposition coalition reiterated in a statement Friday that it’s open to starting a dialogue with the government if its conditions are met and added that it is waiting on electoral authorities.

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