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Venezuela's opposition firebrand Leopoldo López appears in court

Violence escalates in several cities as president calls growing unrest an attempted coup instigated by United States

The Venezuelan opposition’s agitator-in-chief, Leopoldo López, has been sent before a judge to face terrorism charges as violent nationwide protests move into a second week of street clashes and shootings.

Supporters gathered outside the palace of justice on Wednesday to show solidarity for the politician, who has emerged as a leading figure for anti-government frustrations in a week in which at least four people have been killed and dozens wounded.

Clashes in the past 24 hours have seen some of the worst violence yet. Eight people were seriously wounded in the city of Valencia after students were shot at by pro-government groups. In San Cristóbal, Chavista governor Jose Vielma Mora said protesters had thrown Molotov cocktails and grenades during the most recent marches. His residence was vandalised two weeks ago in similar incidents.

A Catholic priest and campaigner was wounded during a protest in the western city of Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city, when the national guard tried to disperse an opposition rally using tear gas and rubber bullets. The immediate condition of José Palmar – a vocal anti-government activist – was unclear.

With continuing unrest in several other cities, including Caracas, Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, has warned that an attempted coup is under way, backed by the United States and instigated by López, who handed himself in to the authorities on Tuesday after several days in hiding.

The Harvard-educated politician is being charged with intentional double homicide, terrorism, damage to public property and inciting violence after a student protest last week turned deadly and scores of public buildings were destroyed. He denies the charges.

Given the firm control that the ruling Chavista bloc has over the judicial system, the judgment on his fate is likely to be a political as much as a legal decision. A member of his legal team, Bernardo Pulido, told the Guardian the odds were stacked against his client. “We are facing a titanic task. We don’t trust this judicial system, we don’t trust any institutions here. We don’t have fair judges that can be impartial,” Pulido said.

López makes no secret of his desire to unseat Maduro – who was elected last year and subsequently led his party to victories in municipal polls last December – through public demonstrations. He and other radicals in the opposition have launched a campaign known as La Salida (The Exit).

Last week, he called on Venezuelans to take to the streets to protest against the recent imprisonment of several students across the oil-rich nation. The demonstrations swelled to include thousands of people showing their discontent over mounting inflation and soaring crime rates.

Following Tuesday’s detention, the López camp has asked supporters to email videos or photographs that might shed light on the deaths of two of the three people killed during last week’s protest.

López is charged with these two fatalities. Although the identity of the killer or killers remains unproven, speculation is rife that they were members of the security forces.

Earlier this week a team of journalists from a national newspaper, Ultimas Noticias, presented a compilation of amateur and professional video reconstructing the moment in which one of the protesters was killed in downtown Caracas long after López addressed the crowds and most people had returned home.

In the video, a man in civilian clothes standing next to members of national security forces can be seen shooting at a group of students. He then rides off on the back of a motorcycle with a government licence plate. According to the Venezuelan constitution, weapons are banned in public demonstrations.

Adding to the mystery, Maduro said last week that the gun used to kill one of the students was also used in the murder of a member of a colectivo – a group of militia-like government supporters known to have caused turmoil during the protests in other cities. How the same gun came to shoot people who were ostensibly on opposite sides of the protest has raised suspicions about possible revenge attacks, internal feuds or the use of agents provocateurs.

Despite the confusion, the government has blamed López. But far from hurting his reputation, the extra attention appears to have strengthened his standing in the opposition movement led by Henrique Capriles.

A dramatic video message made while in hiding, and a megaphone speech which López gave before turning himself in, have propelled him into the limelight at a time when the country is struggling with inflation running at a world-highest 56% and sky-high murder rates.

After his detention on Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of protesters clad in white took to Caracas’s main thoroughfare, blocking the vehicle in which López was being transported.

Maduro said López negotiated terms before turning himself in during a midnight meeting the previous night with the head of parliament, Diosdado Cabello. The president said Cabello – who is close to the military – personally drove López to a jail outside Caracas to “protect his safety” after intelligence reports suggested the extreme right would try to murder the opposition politician in an attempt to create a martyr and destabilise the country.

These fears were repeated by López’s wife, Lilian Tintori.

“There were great threats that they wanted to assassinate Leopoldo López. The government spoke to the family to safeguard Leopoldo and they did. They protected his safety from Plaza Brion to the palace of justice”, she said in a television interview.

For Pulido, however, it is the government that has put López’s life at risk by blaming the opposition leader for the death of a member of a colectivo.

“López’s life has always been on risk because he is high-profile politician. It is more so now with the government blaming him for the death of a member of a colectivo,” Pulido said.

Wednesday’s hearings will decide if López awaits trial in jail or from home. “We are working to sanction those who are responsible not only as material authors but as intellectual authors. That is, those who call for or incite violence. These messages are direct but sometimes also subliminal”, said Luisa Ortega, public prosecutor.

Either way, he looks set to take the initiative from Capriles and become the figurehead of a more confrontational Venezuelan opposition.

In the short term, this may suit Maduro. David Smilde, a senior fellow at the campaign group Washington Office on Latin America, who is currently in Caracas, said the government camp was likely to benefit from a more entrenched political battle because it has the bigger base of support – as it has shown in several recent elections.

“It would make sense for the government if López was the figurehead of opposition,” Smilde said. “It has long been government strategy to polarise, to create a sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’ – because they have the numbers.”

But he cautioned the situation could change if the violence intensifies or the economy slips further into a crisis.

“In that case, whoever is head of the opposition will be in a very strong position,” he said.

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