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Venezuelan opposition leader Lopez faces court behind bars

By Mariano Castillo. Catherine E. Shoichet and Jethro Mullen, CNN
updated 11:04 PM EST, Wed February 19, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lopez's family says a court hearing for the opposition leader has begun
  • Charges against opposition leader include murder, terrorism, arson
  • Obama: Venezuela should focus on people's concerns, not make false accusations
  • Maduro about Lopez in prison: "I will do that with all the fascists"

iReport: Have you witnessed the protests in Venezuela? Share your experiences, but please stay safe.

(CNN) -- Facing the largest anti-government protests in his 11 months in power, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro vowed to move forward with the prosecution of a leading opposition figure on charges of terrorism and murder.

Four anti-government protesters and one government supporter have died in clashes around the country.

The man the government blames for the deaths is Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader who turned himself in to authorities on Tuesday.

A court hearing to determine whether Lopez will be released or remain behind bars began inside a military prison Wednesday night, his family told CNN en Español.

Human rights groups warn about the danger of turning the protests into a persecution of political opponents.

The charges against Lopez, who has organized protests demanding better security, an end to shortages and protected freedom of speech, "smack of a politically motivated attempt to silence dissent in the country," Amnesty International said in a statement.

A masked anti-government demonstrator returns a tear gas canister to Bolivarian National Guards during clashes in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, April 12. For months, protesters unhappy with Venezuela's economy and rising crime have been at odds with security forces. A masked anti-government demonstrator returns a tear gas canister to Bolivarian National Guards during clashes in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, April 12. For months, protesters unhappy with Venezuela's economy and rising crime have been at odds with security forces.
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Human Rights Watch weighed in, too, warning that Venezuela must avoid "scapegoating" political opponents.

But the way forward seemed set, with Maduro referring to opposition leaders as fascists and vowing to take a hard line against those responsible for surging violence.

In a national television broadcast Wednesday night, Maduro accused the opposition of trying to overthrow his government with a slow-motion coup.

"This fascist group's leader is already prisoner. He will respond," Maduro said. "And I said, 'He will go to prison.' And that is what I did. And I will do that with all the fascists, wherever they are."

Charges against Lopez include murder, terrorism and arson in connection with the protests, according to his party, Popular Will.

Lopez denies the accusations, the party said in a statement, which also asked witnesses of the protests to send their own accounts of what happened to be used in his defense.

The party has blamed the government for the violence.

Court inside military prison

Crowds of supporters, media crews and security forces swarmed Venezuela's justice building as anticipation built over the hearing. But Lopez's legal team said Wednesday afternoon that officials had ordered a last-minute change of venue for security reasons.

Juan Carlos Gutierrez, an attorney representing Lopez, told reporters that a court had been set up inside the military prison outside Caracas where the opposition leader is being held. Defense attorneys were on the way to the prison and planned to argue against holding a hearing there, he said.

Lopez's supporters accused the government of violating his due process by setting up a court session inside the prison.

"This is unprecedented. Our constitution says that everyone should be judged in liberty," his father, also named Leopoldo Lopez, told CNN en Español on Wednesday.

Delsa Solorzano, a Venezuelan representative to the Latin American Parliament, said holding a court session inside the military prison raises a major red flag.

"It demonstrates that in Venezuela there is no separation of powers," she told CNN affiliate Globovision.

Lopez's wife, Lilian Tintori de Lopez, told CNN en Español she was holding out hope that her husband would be set free after the hearing.

"The last thing he said to me was for me to not forget what he is going through," she said. "Not forget that he is arrested for things that he has asked for: the liberation of political prisoners, liberation of students, no more oppression, no more violence."

Obama: Venezuela 'trying to distract from its own failings'

Major social and economic problems in Venezuela have fueled the protests. But as the demonstrations gained steam, officials have pointed fingers at other factors, accusing the United States of plotting to destabilize the government.

U.S. President Barack Obama fired back during a news conference in Mexico on Wednesday.

"Venezuela, rather than trying to distract from its own failings by making up false accusations against diplomats from the United States, the government ought to focus on addressing the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people," he told reporters. "So, along with the Organization of American States, we call on the Venezuelan government to release protesters that it's detained, and engage in real dialogue. All parties have an obligation to work together to restrain violence and restore calm."

On Monday, Venezuela gave three U.S. diplomats 48 hours to leave the country, accusing them of conspiring to bring down the government. At a rally Tuesday, Maduro shouted, "Yankee, go home" from the stage, drawing cheers from the crowd.

In Wednesday's television broadcast, Maduro accused Colombian paramilitary forces and the United States of fueling the violence, and vowed to stand firm against any attempts to overthrow his government.

"And what is the Venezuelan opposition going to do?" he said. "Believe that with the support of John Kerry or Obama, you are going to be able to take political power by violent means?"

This isn't the first time that bitter protests and counterprotests by supporters and opponents of the government have threatened political stability in Venezuela over the past decade.

Many of Maduro's claims -- of U.S. intervention, of assassination plots -- were also lobbed by the late President Hugo Chavez. Chavez was briefly ousted in a coup in 2002, but otherwise outlasted the protests and repeatedly won reelection. He ruled for 14 years, until his death last year after a long battle with cancer.

Death toll up

The latest victim of the violence died on Wednesday, a day after being shot during an anti-government protest in the state of Carabobo.

The death of Genesis Carmona drew attention because the student was also a beauty queen. She was winner of the 2013 Miss Tourism crown in Carabobo, and represented her state at Miss Tourism Venezuela.

Her Twitter account shows she actively retweeted messages from opposition leaders and supported Lopez. She even retweeted guidance for a workaround in case the government tried to block access to social media as the protests grew.

The last thing Carmona shared on Twitter was a retweet: "Stay with the one who tells the best stories. One day they will tell yours."

In Wednesday night's national television broadcast, Maduro described bullet wounds sustained by government forces during protests and showed videos that he said depicted opposition protesters throwing stones and setting buses ablaze.

"You think this is a novel? This is the reality that you with your hatred have created," he said. "If you don't like Venezuela, leave."

CNN equipment taken

A CNN crew covering the anti-government demonstrations had its equipment taken away at gunpoint Tuesday -- but the journalists were unharmed.

The incident took place in a neighborhood in Caracas where the CNN crew was preparing to film and the National Guard was present.

About 20 men on motorbikes rode toward a crowd of anti-government protesters when they noticed the journalists and approached them, brandishing several guns.

They demanded that the crew hand over its equipment, including a camera and broadcasting gear.

17-year-old dies during Venezuelan protests

Venezuela: Expelled U.S. diplomats have 48 hours to leave

Clashes between protesters, police

CNN's Patricia Janiot and journalist Osmary Hernandez in Caracas and CNN's Miguel Escalona, Chelsea J. Carter, Marilia Brocchetto, Mayra Cuevas and Holly Yan contributed to this report.

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