Leopoldo López is blamed for street fighting that has killed almost 40 people since anti-government rally seven weeks ago
The jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López has been formally charged with inciting violence at an anti-government protest that was followed by weeks of unrest across the country.
Chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz announced the charges on Friday, a day before the legal deadline to make the case for keeping López in custody.
The Harvard-educated López has become a cause celebre among opponents of President Nicolás Maduro during the month and a half he has spent in a military prison outside the capital.
López’s Popular Will party responded with what it said would be a 24-hour protest to demand his freedom. Protesters gathered at the same plaza where the 42-year-old former mayor dramatically surrendered to authorities on 18 February while surrounded by a sea of supporters.
López’s wife helped lead the rally that began on Friday afternoon. The protest remained peaceful as night fell, with hundreds of police looking on.
The US embassy put out a statement mentioning the rally and advising Americans to avoid protests and large gatherings and urging them to stay inside after nightfall.
The unrest has caused at least 39 deaths, including both anti- and pro-government activists as well as bystanders, according to official figures. Most of the deaths happened after López was arrested.
Prosecutors said López was responsible for the deadly violence that followed a peaceful march on 12 February, saying he encouraged followers to set fire to and destroy public buildings. Maduro accused him of being the visible face of a US-backed “fascist” conspiracy to topple his year-old administration.
If found guilty, López could serve nearly 14 years in prison. It would be by far the longest sentence for an opposition leader since the protests began.