Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez to face trial over protests

Leopoldo Lopez stands at the monument of Cuba's most important independence-era hero, Jose Marti, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Feb. 18, 2014.

A Venezuelan opposition leader has been ordered to stand trial on charges of instigating violence at an anti-government demonstration in February, prosecutors said Thursday.

A judge ruled that Leopoldo Lopez, who has been in custody for more than three months, should stand trial over his alleged role in violence that broke out during a rally against the government of Nicolas Maduro on February 12.

Opponents of Maduro took to the streets in February to protest rampant crime, runaway inflation, a lack of economic opportunity and shortages of basic goods in the country with the world's largest proven oil reserves.

At least 42 people died in the protests, which went on for four months. Now, only sporadic demonstrations attract a handful of people.

The 43-year-old Lopez, a Harvard-educated economist, leads an opposition party called Popular Will.

The party is considered a hardline wing of an opposition umbrella grouping and pushed for the leftist Maduro to step down outright, whereas other factions just wanted economic and political reforms.

Lopez is charged specifically with instigating arson and property damage and with criminal association. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.

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He was ordered to remain in custody pending the trial. No trial date was announced, after a marathon hearing that began Wednesday.

Four students were also ordered to stand trial.

'Prisoner of conscience' 

Lopez is being held at the Ramo Verde military prison on the outskirts of Caracas and has described himself as a "political prisoner" and "prisoner of conscience."

"I am calm, strong, with the truth on my side," Lopez said during Wednesday's hearing, according to his legal team. "Any outcome other than my freedom is unconstitutional."

As the anti-government demos continued, protesters demanded the release of Lopez and dozens of others arrested during the unrest.

Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, is the handpicked successor of populist firebrand leader Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer last year.

Maduro has likened the protests to a coup designed to oust him ever since he succeeded Chavez, pointing the finger at the United States. Washington has dismissed the allegations.

Efforts to resolve differences between the government and opposition through dialogue have faltered due to the arrest of more than 200 students last month, when authorities demolished protest camps. Most have since been released.

Venezuela, an OPEC nation, is struggling with inflation near 60 percent, as well as rampant crime and shortages of goods as basic as toilet paper, milk and sugar.

Most economic experts blame the South American country's problems on a decade of rigid currency and price controls, as well as rising debt, dependence on imports and stagnant growth.