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Outraged by Lopez Sentence, Venezuelan Opposition Looks to Elections

Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, holds up a letter from her husband as she speaks during a news conference in Caracas, Sept. 11, 2015.

Venezuela's opposition denounced the sentencing of politician Leopoldo Lopez to nearly 14 years in jail as a tyrannical move by the unpopular ruling Socialists, and they vowed to redouble their campaign to beat them in December's parliamentary election.

Jailed hard-line opposition leader Lopez was convicted late Thursday of inciting 2014 anti-government protests that led to violence in which 43 people died. He was found guilty of provoking arson, violence and damage to public property.

After 18 months of a well-oiled international campaign for Lopez's release, his wife, mother and supporters were shaken by the sentencing in the closed-door trial.

"Today it is reaffirmed once again that we live under a repressive, anti-democratic regime," said Lilian Tintori, a former champion kite-surfer who has two children with Lopez.

Washington said it was "deeply troubled" by the ruling, while U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville voiced concern about the "harsh sentence" and reported trial "irregularities."

'Not objective at all'

Judge Susana Barreiros rejected 58 of the 60 defense's witnesses, though she allowed the prosecution 108 witnesses, according to Lopez's lawyers, who will appeal the sentence.

"This trial was not objective at all," said Diana Quintero, 50, a publicist, weeping in Caracas' wealthy Chacao district, where Lopez was once mayor. "Maduro sees Lopez as his strongest rival."

President Nicolas Maduro said Lopez is a dangerous criminal and pawn of the elite, intent on subverting the government under the guise of peaceful protests. He pointed to Lopez's attempts to unseat the late Hugo Chavez during a failed coup in 2002.

"There's no way Leopoldo Lopez can participate in killing and be freed," said Carmen Quintero, dressed in a red Socialist party T-shirt with a group of relatives of government supporters killed in 2014.

Those government backers and Lopez supporters clashed Thursday outside his trial, with one opposition activist dying of a heart attack, according to Lopez's Popular Will party.

Citizenry's concerns

Despite opposition outrage over the sentence, Venezuela's streets were calm Friday. With inflation raging, shortages from antibiotics to meat, and a biting recession, many are simply consumed with day-to-day survival.

"I didn't follow any of the trial," said beautician apprentice Emily, 19, standing in a line outside a supermarket. "I only have one roll of toilet paper at home. I arrived here at 3 a.m. This country is a complete disaster."

Opposition politicians are seeking to channel such anger into votes in the Dec. 6 election, which polls forecast they stand a strong chance of winning.

Some opposition moderates see Lopez as a hot-headed egotist who miscalculated when he called for the demonstrations, which led to several politicians' arrests and failed to gain much traction beyond affluent areas.

"The only thing we have are votes," said Angel Rojas, 32, a human resources manager.

Still, some in the opposition are pessimistic about their odds of victory in the face of a powerful state propaganda apparatus, institutions filled with "Chavistas" and an electoral playing field seen benefiting the government.

"We're completely kidnapped on a judicial, political, social and economic front," said Rojas, adding that Lopez did not deserve a prison sentence. "It's a complete disgrace."

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