A Venezuelan judge ruled Thursday that opposition leader Leopoldo López must stand trial on charges related to instigating violence during an anti-government protest on February 12.
López will remain in custody in Ramo Verde military prison during the proceedings. If found guilty, he could face up to 10 years in jail for arson, damage to public property, incitement and conspiracy.
López, 43, leads the “Popular Will” or “Voluntad Popular” party and has been held at Ramo Verde, about an hour from the capital, Caracas, for more than 100 days, without a hearing.
No press or immediate family were allowed inside during the lengthy, three-day long hearing. The government’s case rested largely on López’s political speeches critiquing the administration of President Nicolás Maduro.
“They’re basing their whole case on the ‘subliminal influence’ of Lopez’s rhetoric and tweets,” said Bernardo Pulido, one of Leopoldo López’s defense lawyers.
During the Feb. 12th protests, he and Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado called for “La Salida” or “The Exit,” meaning the exit of President Nicolás Maduro from power.
The protests turned violent when three people, including two students, were shot dead.
“If he hadn’t called for protests this wouldn’t have happened, therefore, he’s guilty. That’s what the district attorney argued,” said Pulido, one of the few people in the court room.
“It was shocking to see how they couldn’t look at [Lopez] or us in the eye. They’re all convinced that he’s innocent, but they’re following orders,” he recounted.
López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, who had just returned from an overseas trip lobbying for her husband’s liberation, including a visit to the Vatican, stood outside the walls of the Palace of Justice with her two children, Manuela, 4, and Leopoldo, 1, as well as the defendant’s mother.
Tintori managed to see her husband only briefly in one of the halls of the Palace of Justice. Separated by a security cord and at least 15 members of the National Guard, on Tuesday they managed to exchange a note. Tintori has been denied her visitation rights for 15 days.
López took the floor for almost an hour Tuesday, in what may be one of the speeches that defines his political career and one of his last statements in a long time. Lopez recounted the reasons he called for the February student protests, which have resulted in at least 42 people dead on both sides and more than three thousand detained: the high crime rate and massive scarcity plaguing Venezuelans a year into the Maduro administration.
“In a dictatorship, it’s a crime to talk about insecurity, shortages and the thousands of reasons that make us protest,” López said. “I would rather explain to my kids why I’m imprisoned than explain to them why they don’t have a country,” he continued.
Read Leopoldo López’s full defense in this handwritten note.
Venezuela remains a deeply polarized country, with the much of the country’s poor majority continuing to back Maduro, Hugo Chavez’s handpicked successor, while the middle class and students tend to side with the opposition.