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Thursday, July 31, 2014, 1:01 a.m.
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Opposition leader faces charges in tense Venezuela

By The Associated Press

This article was published February 20, 2014 at 12:58 p.m.

CARACAS, Venezuela — Violence is heating up in Venezuela as an opposition leader faces criminal charges for organizing a rally that set off escalating turmoil in the oil-rich, but economically struggling, country.

After a chaotic night, with gunfire echoing through the streets of many neighborhoods, a judge ruled early Thursday that there is enough evidence to hold Leopoldo Lopez, who dramatically surrendered to authorities before thousands of cheering supporters this week, on charges that include arson and criminal incitement stemming from a Feb. 12 rally.

David Smolansky, a mayor of a district in Caracas and member of the Popular Will party of Lopez, said the leader's arrest and an aggressive manhunt for two other party members show that Venezuela is suffering the harshest wave of political persecution in decades.

"If this isn't a totalitarian system then I don't know what can explain what is happening in this country," Smolansky said at a news conference Thursday.

Prosecutors decided not to pursue more serious charges, including homicide and terrorism, when Lopez made a court appearance at a military base outside Caracas as violence flared across much of the country. The 42-year-old politician could face at least 10 years in prison.

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