Harsh sentence for protest leader a gamble for Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela — The stiff sentence handed down to Venezuela's most prominent jailed opposition leader brought a cascade of criticism on Friday as President Nicolas Maduro's government continued along a combative path despite a crushing economic crisis, feuds with his neighbors and accusations of authoritarianism.

Leopoldo Lopez was convicted late Thursday of inciting violence during a wave of protests against the South American country's socialist administration in 2014, and was sentenced to the maximum punishment of nearly 14 years in a military prison.

Critics at home immediately said the sentence should rally anti-government voters to the polls for crucial December legislative elections. From abroad, the White House said it was "deeply saddened" by the ruling. Amnesty International, the European Union and U.N. human rights officials joined in condemnation.

"This case is a complete travesty of justice," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "In a country that lacks judicial independence, a provisional judge convicts four innocent people after a trial in which the prosecution did not present basic evidence"

The court rejected all but two defense witnesses, both of whom ultimately declined to testify, while letting the prosecution call more than 100 during the closed-door sessions, according to Lopez's attorneys.

Lopez insists he called only for peaceful protests and his backers blame armed government supporters for much of the bloodshed last year that resulted in more than 40 deaths. Government officials said Lopez implicitly encouraged the violence.

The Maduro administration has grown increasingly combative in recent months as it grapples with a dysfunctional economy that has plummeted along with oil prices, contributing to the world's highest inflation and chronic shortages.

The embattled president has revived Venezuela's long-dormant claim to half of its eastern neighbor, Guyana, alarming even allies in the Caribbean. To the west, he's closed much of the border with Colombia, accusing the U.S. ally of nurturing smuggling gangs that he blames for causing widespread shortages by hauling cheap, subsidized gasoline and other products across the border.

The conviction of Lopez is likely to end, for now, a behind-the-scenes push by the U.S. to normalize relations with the country it declared a national security threat in March. The U.S. has not exchanged ambassadors with Venezuela since 2010, and it imposed sanctions on top officials in the spring for human rights abuses connected to last year's protests.

Venezuela reacted to that action, as it often does, by denouncing those sanctions as part of an attempt to topple the government.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Lopez's wife last week and phoned Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez ahead of the verdict to express displeasure about the nature of the trial, which the defense said was marred by irregularities.

On Friday, the White House said Maduro's government was using the justice system to attempt to silence critics.

"The decision to prosecute and sentence Lopez, and the conduct of his trial, have highlighted significant failures in the rule of law and judicial system in Venezuela," National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said.

Maduro has yet to comment on the verdict, but reacted furiously to the White House's statement, accusing the U.S. of coup-mongering.

"The U.S. has erased the small steps taken toward regularizing bilateral relations with this insolent meddling," Foreign Minister Rodriguez said on Twitter.

Meanwhile, conservative lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, began calling for a new round of sanctions in response to what the Republican presidential contender called a "show trial."

The outrage in Washington contrasted with silence in Latin America, where no sitting president had yet to criticize the ruling. Leaders raised during the Cold War, when U.S. military interventions in the region were frequent, are sensitive to Venezuela's demand its sovereignty be respected and as a result have for months expressed respect for Venezuela's judicial system.

Venezuela's chronically divided opposition coalition has for the moment united around a call to campaign hard to win upcoming congressional elections so that the legislature can pass an amnesty bill to free the Harvard-educated politician.

Lopez himself underscored this message in a letter his party said he wrote after the sentencing.

"We cannot allow ourselves to be overcome, we cannot tire. We must rise again and again," he wrote, urging his followers to start mobilizing for the elections.

Unlike past political dogfights in Venezuela, when the government was firmly in control, the current tensions coincide with a deepening economic crisis that has shaken its core support among the poor.

While government supporters were mostly indifferent to Lopez's plight, his conviction gives the opposition a common cause to rally around as it prepares for the legislative elections less than 90 days away, said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst.

"The opposition has to calm voices asking for street protest and disobedience, but almost everything indicates they will take the electoral path," he said.

Lopez's call for massive street protests two months after the socialist party swept regional elections in 2014 split the opposition. But his prominence as a symbol of government repression has grown during the 18 months he's been held at a military prison outside Caracas, with his approval ratings touching almost 50 percent, while Maduro's languish below 30 percent.

While many of Lopez's supporters never doubted he would be convicted, the stiff sentence came as a surprise to those who thought leniency would be shown in a bid to defuse tensions ahead of the elections.

Many supporters gasped Thursday when the sentence was announced at a rally to support the politician, while others began shaking with tears.

On Friday, the opposition called a peaceful protest for the following Saturday to protest the sentence. Security guard Richard Castillo, 25, planned to join in, but said he could not promise to remain peaceful.

"This shows that there's no line they won't cross," he said. "The government has become a dictatorship, and you show me one dictatorship that's given way to non-violent protests."


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AP Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.

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