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Venezuelan Opposition, Government Backers Tangle at Lopez Trial

  • Reuters

Supporters of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez shout to supporters of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro as Venezuelan National Guardsmen try to control the crowd outside the courthouse during his trial in Caracas, Sept. 10, 2015.

Supporters of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez shout to supporters of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro as Venezuelan National Guardsmen try to control the crowd outside the courthouse during his trial in Caracas, Sept. 10, 2015.

Supporters of jailed politician Leopoldo Lopez and pro-government activists clashed Thursday in Caracas outside his trial, as tensions spiked over an approaching verdict for Venezuela's best-known imprisoned opposition leader.

Lopez supporters, who brandished images of the U.S.-educated hard-liner and chanted "Freedom for Leopoldo," said supporters of socialist President Nicolas Maduro attacked them and that one of them suffered a heart attack during the unrest.

"Our activist Horacio Blanco has died following a heart attack in the midst of an ambush led by those on the regime's payroll," Lopez's Popular Will party said.

Fistfights broke out after Lopez's wife, Lilian Tintori, arrived in front of the heavily guarded Palace of Justice where his trial resumed, and Reuters correspondents saw sticks, bottles and rocks being thrown.

Red-clad government backers yelling, "Fascist, terrorist, assassin!" burned the orange flags of Lopez's Popular Will party and fought with opposition supporters, some of whom ran away in a confusing melee of hundreds in a square near the courthouse.

The MUD opposition coalition said a journalist and several civilians were injured.

There was no immediate comment from the government. The Information Ministry said it was looking into the incident.

Violent protests in 2014

Lopez, 44, is accused of inciting 2014 anti-government protests that spiraled into violence in which more than 40 people were killed.

He was allowed three hours to defend himself in court Thursday, with a verdict most likely coming soon, said his attorney, Roberto Marrero. Journalists and some Western diplomatic observers were not allowed to attend the trial.

"I don't trust Venezuelan justice," said Lopez supporter Yulymar Mendez, 45, donning a T-shirt with his face. "Leopoldo is innocent. He's in jail because he promises a better Venezuela, whereas this government has us hungry and there's no freedom."

Supporters say Lopez, a popular ex-mayor of the Chacao district of Caracas, is a scapegoat for Maduro amid a ballooning economic crisis that has led to shortages of goods ranging from flour to condoms.

The U.S. government and the United Nations have called for Lopez's release.

For many low-income supporters of the late Hugo Chavez, however, wealthy Lopez is a dangerous coup-monger disconnected form the needs of most Venezuelans.

"Lopez caused many deaths," Delcy Diaz, 45, who works in a government-run "social mission," said outside the court. "They don't have a need for a better quality of life — that's why they do this," she said, referring to last year's violence.

Lopez's critics also point to his attempts to unseat Chavez in 2002. During the failed coup attempt, he helped organize the illegal arrest of a cabinet member.

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