Supporters rallied around the wife of Venezuela's opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez on Friday, calling for peaceful protests as he was sentenced to nearly 14 years in jail for his role in deadly anti-government demonstrations last year. The European Union joined in denouncing a harsh verdict, while Washington said it was deeply troubled by the treatment of the US-trained economist.
Seen by critics as politically motivated, the ruling is expected to fan tensions in Venezuela, where ongoing runaway inflation and shortages of basic goods fueled last year's protests against President Nicolas Maduro's populist administration.
The 44-year-old Lopez was accused of inciting the violence that led to 43 deaths and some 3,000 people being wounded. Judge Susana Barreiros found him guilty of damage and arson, public incitement and conspiracy, the attorney general's office said.
Lopez's wife Lilian Tintori gave an impassioned speech before dozens of supporters in an eastern Caracas plaza, calling for people to take to the streets nationwide one week from Saturday, as the crowd chanted, Yes we can!
I call on you, she said, to come out on September 19 to build our victory, to take over the streets peacefully and democratically, with strict discipline and no violence.
Tintori, who spoke after visiting Lopez in prison, read a letter from her husband in which he said: I do not regret the decision that I made. He added, great causes deserve great sacrifices.
Lopez wrote that he was convinced of the goodness of this cause, which is none other than the liberation of a people that today suffers the painful consequences of a model that failed economically, politically and socially.
The opposition leader will serve his time at the Ramo Verde military prison outside Caracas, where he has been held since February 2014.
In Washington Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States was deeply troubled by the conviction and sentencing.
The decision raises great concern about the political nature of the judicial process and verdict, and the use of the Venezuelan judicial system to suppress and punish government critics, Kerry said.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez snapped back Friday via Twitter.
The United States, with its insolent meddling, has kicked the timid steps taken towards restoring bilateral ties, she wrote.
She charged that the criminal that the United States defends promoted terrorist acts in 2014 in Venezuela, noting that Washington's statement came on the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The sentencing was also condemned by Human Rights Watch and exile groups in Miami, where more than 100,000 Venezuelans have settled, many of them since late president Hugo Chavez rose to power in 1998.