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Caracas, Venezuela – Venezuela's most prominent opposition leader, Leopoldo López, was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison for having incited violence during the 2014 demonstrations against the regime of Nicolás Maduro. Despite U.S. calls to release the head of the Voluntad Popular party, a federal judge handed down a maximum sentence against him.
About 200 supporters of the country's most-prominent jailed opposition leader gathered in a Caracas plaza expressed disbelief and sadness late Thursday when they learned of the verdict. Several wept and consoled each other with hugs.
U.S. lawmakers immediately called for tougher sanctions against the South American country following the sentencing.
"The sentence , handed down by an illegitimate court, should come as no surprise," said Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican. "It is time that we strengthen sanctions and increase pressure on the Maduro regime in Venezuela."
Reflecting the passions stirred by the trial on both sides of Venezuela's deep political divide, an elderly man died and several people were injured earlier Thursday during clashes outside the courthouse between government loyalists and López supporters.
The opposition leader has repeatedly denied the charges and says he only urged peaceful demonstration against President Nicolás Maduro. Venezuela's socialist government, however, blames him for the violence that left more than 40 people dead during street protests in 2014.
Supporters of the 44-year-old, Harvard-educated former mayor of a wealthy Caracas district say the trial was marred by irregularities. The court rejected all but two defense witnesses, both of whom ultimately declined to testify, while letting the prosecution call more than 100.
The trial was all but closed to the public, and López sometimes refused to attend out of protest. His lawyers said Judge Susana Barreiros abruptly ended the proceedings last week even though many witnesses had yet to take the stand.
Combined with time served, the sentence of 13 years, 9 months, 7 days, and 12 hours was the maximum punishment for López's crimes.
The prosecution focused on López's public statements last year when, under the slogan "The Exit," he and other hardliners pushed for Maduro's resignation just months after pro-government candidates swept regional elections.
Prosecutors say the vitriolic rhetoric encouraged protesters to burn public property and put lives at risk. Officials also accuse him of conspiring with the United States and student demonstrators to try to overthrow the government.
U.S. officials deny that accusation and have made López's release a key demand for normalizing diplomatic relations. Secretary of State John Kerry phoned Venezuela's foreign minister Tuesday to express concern about the trial days after meeting with López's wife, Lilian Tintori, in Washington.
Activists present in the courtroom told the Associated Press that López in his closing remarks looked at the judge and said that if he's freed he'll go home, kiss his children, ask again for his wife's hand in marriage and then start all over again canvassing the country.
While many of López'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 December's legislative elections, which the opposition is heavily favored to win.
Roberta Jacobson, the State Department's top diplomat for Latin America, said in a tweet she was "deeply troubled" by the verdict and called on Venezuela's government to protect democracy and human rights. Human rights groups condemned the verdict.
The chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, Garry Kasparov, said in statement, "Lopez’s trial has confirmed that the fundamental rights and freedoms of Venezuelans are currently suspended, and that the individual is utterly defenseless in the face of government abuse. The free world must bear witness.”
But at a rally of government supporters outside the courthouse before the verdict was read, a band played folk songs with lyrics supporting a guilty verdict.
"Hold him responsible," went the chorus to one song. The government did not immediately comment on the verdict.
López's lawyers vowed to appeal the ruling.
López, a father of two young children, has spent the past year and a half in a military prison outside Caracas where he'll now complete the sentence. With only his family allowed to visit, he managed to release several videos from behind bars.
In May, through a recording shot in his cell, López called the largest rally Venezuela has seen since the wave of anti-government protests in 2014 that led to his jailing. In June he staged a 30-day hunger strike to demand the government schedule congressional elections.
López's team accuses Maduro's government of wanting to sentence him now in hopes that any anger will fade before the vote is held Dec. 6.
Polls say López continues to be one of Venezuela's most popular politicians with approval numbers approaching 50 percent, while Maduro's languish below 30 percent.
But the former triathlete is not universally liked by Venezuela's chronically divided opposition. Some leaders consider him too radical and out of touch with the poor masses who still revere Maduro's predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez.
Crime, inflation and shortages have only gotten worse since last year's protests, though many people have been hesitant to take to the streets again.
Three co-defendants, all of whom had been freed before the verdict, received punishments of between 4 and 10 years by the judge on Thursday.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.
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