Violent clashes flared up across Venezuela on Wednesday as the nation waited to learn what charges jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez will face for organizing mass protests that have breathed new life into the movement challenging socialist rule in the oil-rich nation.
Gunfire echoed through downtown Caracas as President Nicolas Maduro spoke on live TV for more than two hours on Wednesday night denouncing what he calls a “fascist” plot to destabilize the country. Elsewhere, protesters set trash fires in streets or threw rocks at National Guard troops, who fired tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets.
There was no immediate word on whether there were any new casualties, after a week of demonstrations and clashes that have resulted in at least six deaths and more than 100 injuries.
Mr. Lopez, who dramatically surrendered to authorities before thousands of cheering supporters on Tuesday, was supposed to appear before a judge inside a military jail to learn what charges he might face for organizing the protests that the government has blamed for the violence.
The hearing was closed and the outcome had not been announced by late Wednesday, but Mr. Maduro suggested in his speech that Lopez would remain in custody and face criminal charges.
“I said, ‘Send him to jail,’ and that’s what happened and that’s what will happen with all of the fascists,” Mr. Maduro said.
The government has accused Lopez, a 42-year-old former mayor and the leader of the Popular Will party, of attempting to foment a coup in the South American nation and authorities had said he could face charges that include homicide and causing grievous bodily harm.
Before the president’s speech, a judicial official told The Associated Press that prosecutors were leaning toward discarding homicide and terrorism charges, opting instead to pursue less serious counts such as arson and incitement to commit crimes. That would allow the possibility of Lopez being released pending trial, according to the official, who agreed to discuss the matter only if not quoted by name because the decision had not been made public.
Mr. Maduro made that seem unlikely. “I won’t allow him to challenge the people of Venezuela, the constitution,” he said.
The president also said he would take harsh measures in Tachira, an opposition stronghold on the western border with Colombia where there have been fierce clashes between National Guard troops and opposition protesters. Mr. Maduro said he is prepared to declare a “state of exception,” a form of martial law.
“If I have to decree a state of exception for Tachira and send in the tanks, I am ready to do it,” he said.
Early in the day, hundreds of supporters waited outside a courthouse for news of Lopez’s legal fate, watched over by National Guard troops. Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, a member of a different opposition party, showed up at one point in a sign of unity among the various foes of the Maduro government.
“We are all united in demanding the release of Leopoldo Lopez,” Mr. Ledezma told the AP. “We are rallying behind him.”
The crowd drifted away after hours of waiting when officials decided to hold the court hearing at the military jail outside the city where Lopez was being detained.
The opposition is planning marches across the country on Saturday to protest both his detention as well as the rampant crime, shortages of consumer goods and inflation rate of more than 50 per cent that has made life difficult for many in the country of nearly 30 million people.
The jailing of Lopez has made him a cause celebre among opponents of Mr. Maduro, eclipsing to some degree Henrique Capriles, the opposition’s two-time losing presidential candidate who was building support for another challenge in two years.
Mr. Capriles attended a rally on February 12 in Caracas led by Lopez but did not appear on the stage to address the masses of demonstrators. Clashes with police erupted afterward, after the opposition leaders had left, and resulted in three deaths. In Twitter messages Wednesday, Mr. Capriles accused the government of infiltrating opposition demonstrations to provoke violence.
Mr. Maduro accused Mr. Lopez of leading a plot to oust the socialist government, the political legacy of the late Hugo Chavez, and authorities issued an arrest warrant for him. He surrendered theatrically Tuesday, dressed in white to signify peace, adorned with a crucifix from his wife and surrounded by a sea of supporters.
“If my jailing serves to awaken a people, serves to awaken Venezuela ... then it will be well worth the infamous imprisonment imposed upon me directly, with cowardice,” he shouted.
Much of the capital shut down afterward, fearing violent clashes, but the violence occurred in Valencia, the third largest city, where National Guard troops fired rubber bullets and unknown gunman on motorcycles fired live rounds at protesters. Genesis Carmona, a 22-year-old university student who had been Miss Tourism 2013 for the state of Carabobo, was struck in the head and killed by a bullet, a death that reverberated in a country that prizes beauty queens.
The troubles spread on Wednesday with a significant clash in the wealthy Altamira district of Caracas. In southern Bolivar state, gunman firing from a rooftop at a pro-government rally killed one person and wounded four, Gov. Francisco Rangel Gomez said.