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Murder charges against Venezuela opposition leader dropped

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Posted at 10:39 AM, Feb 20, 2014
and last updated 2014-02-20 12:39:26-05

By Mariano Castillo and Ed Payne

(CNN) — Venezuelan prosecutors dropped the most serious charges against opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez, whom the country’s president had blamed for inciting clashes that have left at least five people dead, his lawyers said Thursday.

Lopez, one of the leading opposition figures in Venezuela, was formally charged with arson and conspiracy, but murder and terrorism charges were dropped, said his attorney, Juan Carlos Gutierrez.

If convicted, Lopez could face up to 10 years in prison.

Lopez’s legal team welcomed the reduced charges, though it criticized the way the judicial process was being carried out.

Wednesday night’s hearing, to charge Lopez and determine whether he would be released or remain behind bars, took place in an unusual spot: a bus parked outside the prison where he is being held.

“It seems very unorthodox,” Gutierrez told CNN en Español.

The initial court appearance was to take place in a courtroom, but because of security concerns, officials wanted to move it to the prison.

Gutierrez argued that inside a prison was not a proper venue for a hearing, so the strange solution was reached: the bus-turned-courtroom parked just outside the facility.

The prison, outside the capital, Caracas, is a military facility, and Lopez’s defense has raised questions about why a civilian is being held there.

The response was that it was a place where the government could guarantee his safety, Gutierrez said.

Lopez turned himself in to authorities this week in a dramatic scene before tens of thousands of supporters he had called to the streets.

The anti-government protests in recent weeks are the largest demonstrations that President Nicolas Maduro has faced in his 11 months in power.

Human rights concerns

Human rights groups warned about the danger of turning the protests into a persecution of political opponents.

The charges against Lopez, who has organized protests demanding better security, an end to shortages and protected freedom of speech, “smack of a politically motivated attempt to silence dissent in the country,” Amnesty International said in a prepared statement.

Human Rights Watch weighed in, too, warning that Venezuela must avoid “scapegoating” political opponents.

The unrest

Major social and economic problems in Venezuela have fueled the protests. But as the demonstrations gained steam, officials have pointed fingers at other factors, accusing the United States of plotting to destabilize the government.

U.S. President Barack Obama fired back at a news conference in Mexico on Wednesday.

“Venezuela, rather than trying to distract from its own failings by making up false accusations against diplomats from the United States, the government ought to focus on addressing the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people,” he told reporters.

“So, along with the Organization of American States, we call on the Venezuelan government to release protesters that it’s detained, and engage in real dialogue. All parties have an obligation to work together to restrain violence and restore calm.”

On Monday, Venezuela gave three U.S. diplomats 48 hours to leave the country, accusing them of conspiring to bring down the government. At a rally Tuesday, Maduro shouted, “Yankee, go home” from the stage, drawing cheers from the crowd.

In a television broadcast Wednesday, Maduro accused Colombian paramilitary forces and the United States of fueling the violence, and he vowed to stand firm against any attempts to overthrow his government.

“And what is the Venezuelan opposition going to do?” he said. “Believe that with the support of (U.S. Secretary of State) John Kerry or Obama, you are going to be able to take political power by violent means?”

This isn’t the first time that bitter protests and counterprotests by supporters and opponents of the government have threatened political stability in Venezuela over the past decade.

Many of Maduro’s claims — of U.S. intervention, of assassination plots — were also lobbed by the late President Hugo Chavez. Chavez was briefly ousted in a coup in 2002, but otherwise outlasted the protests and repeatedly won reelection. He ruled for 14 years, until his death last year after a long battle with cancer.

CNN’s Gabriela Matute, Alejandra Oraa and Marilia Brocchetto contributed to this report.

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