Jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez rattles cage, defiant in court and prison

Locked up and denounced by Venezuela's government as a terrorist, Leopoldo Lopez may be out of sight, but he is not out of mind.

Building-sized posters of the charismatic opposition leader shouting, with his fist pumped into the air, dot wealthy Caracas neighborhoods. The same image can be found stenciled on the walls in the pro-government slums, but below the word "Murderer."

President Nicolas Maduro raises the specter of his foe nearly every night, using his televised addresses to denounce the 43-year-old Harvard graduate who, despite having been jailed since February, has become Venezuela's most popular politician as well as a human-rights icon drawing international pressure on the government.

Accused of inciting violent protests in early 2014, and the threat of a 13-year prison term hanging over him, Lopez is again exhibiting the defiance he used to call opponents of the South American country's socialist government into the streets, but now in a windowless courtroom secured behind four military checkpoints. During his most recent appearance in the ongoing trial, the square-jawed Lopez delivered a rollicking, hour-long speech fit for a political rally.

"I have to tell you, when we get out, we will be even more determined," he told Judge Susana Barreiros.

The proceedings have been almost completely closed to the public. In November, The Associated Press had a rare opportunity to witness the trial as a guest of Lopez's family. Cameras were barred, as was any note-taking.

The tall, former triathlete was surprisingly gaunt and a thick beard covered his familiar clean-shaven face. But his powerful voice still filled the fluorescent-lit room, where his wife grew teary-eyed among some two dozen observers in wooden pews.

Lopez denounced the young judge as lacking courage and compared her to a hired assassin. He waved copies of the constitution drafted by the late President Hugo Chavez, and held up a book of the writings of Venezuela's beloved revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar, a distant great uncle of Lopez.

His blue blood political heritage and old-money roots make him a natural champion of the Venezuelan elite. Ivy League-educated and accompanied by his equally photogenic wife, a former TV hostess and champion kite-surfer, Lopez comes off as a Venezuelan version of a Kennedy — albeit a stridently conservative one.

Of the two factions opposing Venezuela's unsteady administration, Lopez represents the more radical extreme. While others such as opposition heavyweight Henrique Capriles were advocating gradual electoral change, Lopez called hundreds of thousands of supporters into the streets to demand that Maduro resign only months into his six-year term.

Violence stemming from the protests left more than 40 people dead, including both Maduro supporters and opponents.

The government's view is that Lopez pretended to rally ordinary people fed up with crime, inflation and widespread shortages but was actually conniving with students and the United States to overthrow the government.

The unrest fizzled after Lopez was jailed, and chronic infighting between his faction and more moderate leaders has prevented the opposition from taking advantage of growing discontent with the administration over Venezuela's economic free fall.

With ample time for reflection, Lopez doesn't appear to have become any more eager for compromise. Unity isn't a goal in and of itself, he told AP in an interview outside the courtroom doors.

And his political martyrdom has had an upside. Lopez's personal brand is booming. For years, the former mayor of Chacao, a wealthy Caracas suburb, was seen as arrogant and overly-ambitious, if effective. He now consistently polls among the most popular politicians in the country, with his favorability approaching 50 percent, while Maduro's has slid below 30 percent, according to surveys released in recent months by a leading national pollster, Datanalisis.

Previously unknown beyond Venezuela, human rights groups now consider Lopez Latin America's most prominent political prisoner. U.S. President Barack Obama and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights have called for his release. Foreign Policy magazine named him one of the 100 most important global thinkers this year, and the Harvard Kennedy School awarded him its alumni achievement award in absentia.

When Lopez will leave his cell remains a question. The defense considers the federal trial to be a circus, with Maduro bent on keeping Lopez behind bars. Judge Barreiros has denied all but one of the defense's 63 proposed witnesses, while allowing the prosecution to call more than 100.

So why put on such a strenuous show for a judge whose hands may be tied?

"This is our only opening, limited as it is," Lopez told the AP.

Defense attorney Juan Carlos Gutierrez said they hope the trial will keep international attention on Lopez and bring pressure on the administration. "We know Lopez's liberty depends on Maduro, and not a judge," he said.

The chief prosecutor's office did not respond to requests for comment.

The court has met only a handful of times in six months, often convening as night falls. Before each hearing, soldiers with riot shields and submachine guns close the streets around the courthouse. Only family members and, sometimes, international observers and others on their guest lists are allowed through. AP is the first international news outlet to have made it into the courtroom.

As the restrictions tighten around Lopez, he is rattling his cage more fervently. He's begun staging a daily protest, banging on his prison bars at dusk. Lopez has refused to end the defiance, even though it's meant his visitors are restricted to only his two young children and the noise is heard only within the prison walls.

His wife, Lilian Tintori, said that when he surrendered to authorities in February, the family thought his detention would be brief. She told their 5-year-old daughter that Lopez was just on a business trip. Asked why they didn't flee when the charges were levied against her husband, Tintori pointed to one word tattooed on her wrist: Venezuela.

Her husband has a matching one on his ankle, she said. "Someone has to stay and fight."

On a recent visit to the prison, Tintori caught sight of her husband from a distance, making out his long figure waving from his prison bars. He was keeping his balance by clinging to the window bars, giving him the appearance of a man just hanging on. "Hello, beautiful!" he called out.

A piercing police siren made any additional words impossible. Lopez gave a final fist pump through his bars before vanishing from view.


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