Fresh Venezuela protests over jailed opposition leader

Supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez rallying on Wednesday, Feb 19, 2014, outside a Caracas court where he was expected to hear charges blaming him for a deadly episode of violence. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez rallying on Wednesday, Feb 19, 2014, outside a Caracas court where he was expected to hear charges blaming him for a deadly episode of violence. -- PHOTO: AFP 

CARACAS (AFP) - About 100 supporters of jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez rallied on Wednesday, Feb 19, 2014, outside a Caracas court where he was expected to hear charges blaming him for a deadly episode of violence.

Heavy security surrounded the Palace of Justice, blocking streets leading to the building, where the Harvard-educated economist was to appear after spending the night in jail.

Mr Lopez's dramatic surrender to national guard troops at a protest rally on Tuesday came after two weeks of tension-filled protests in the oil-rich country against the leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Four people have been killed in violence linked to the protests since last week, with the latest fatality a 21-year-old woman who died on Wednesday after suffering a gunshot wound to the head during a march in the northern city of Valencia.

Mr Maduro, successor of the late Hugo Chavez, is under fire over what protesters say is rampant crime, runaway inflation, high unemployment and other economic problems.

After three people were killed in street clashes on Feb 12, Mr Maduro ordered Mr Lopez's arrest, blaming him for the violence.

Political scientist Angel Oropeza said the government is walking a tightrope.

"They may hold him for a few days. If they free him right away, it would be a sign of weakness," said the political science professor at Simon Bolivar University.

"But if they hold on to him for a long time, it could fuel the protests even more and the government would come under more international pressure," he said.

Prof Oropeza said that with the arrest, the only thing the government has achieved is to divert people's attention away from Venezuela's economic woes and "shift debate to an area it has always handled better - that of political confrontation".

On Tuesday, Mr Lopez told thousands of his supporters, all clad in white, that he hoped his arrest would highlight the "unjust justice" in Venezuela. He drew an explosion of cheers from the crowds.

Mr Maduro, speaking to pro-government oil workers dressed in red in the western part of the city, countered that Mr Lopez would have to "answer for his calls to sedition."

Mr Lopez, clad in white and draped in a Venezuelan flag, suddenly emerged in the crowd on Tuesday on the Plaza Brion, climbing a statue of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti.

After delivering a brief message to his cheering supporters, who had defied a ban on the march, he surrendered to the National Guard.

"I present myself before an unjust justice, before a corrupt justice," said Mr Lopez.

"If my incarceration serves to wake up a people... (it) will have been worth it." He calmly walked under escort to a National Guard vehicle as his supporters pressed in around the vehicle, blocking its path.

Mr Maduro's government summoned its followers to rallies of its own in an area of downtown Caracas, amid fears of clashes with the opposition demonstrators.

The tensions generated by the protests have spilled into the international arena as well.

On Sunday, Mr Maduro ordered the expulsion of three US diplomats, accusing them of meeting with student leaders under the guise of offering them visas.

State Department deputy spokesman Marie Harf said Wednesday that the United States was still mulling its options.

"I would repeat very strongly that the allegations against our diplomats by the Venezuelan government are baseless and false, and that right now, we are considering what actions to take," Ms Harf said.

Venezuela's relations with Washington, long strained under Mr Chavez, have remained sour and distrustful under Mr Maduro, who has hewed closely to his predecessor's socialist policies.