Jailed Venezuelan leader starts hunger strike, urges protest

AP News
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Posted: May 23, 2015 11:40 PM
Jailed Venezuelan leader starts hunger strike, urges protest

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez said he is beginning a hunger strike and called for a mass anti-government protest next week in a video leaked Saturday.

Lopez has been held in a military prison for more than a year on charges related to his role in leading protests against the South American country's socialist administration last year.

In the video, the former Caracas area mayor repeats his charge that the government is corrupt and incompetent, and he accuses authorities of killing dozens of people during the 2014 protests, which saw more than 40 deaths.

The video comes after Venezuela's currency lost a quarter of its value over the last week.

Earlier Saturday, news broke that fellow opposition leader Daniel Ceballos was being removed from the military prison outside Caracas where he was being held with Lopez, and transferred to a public jail away from the capital.

Lopez's video offered a rare glimpse of the Harvard-educated opposition leader who has become an international cause celebre among opponents of President Nicolas Maduro.

"One year and three months after our call for change, the situation has gotten even worse. More lines, more inflation, more scarcity, more crime, more corruption," he says, standing in front of what looks like a metal door in a mostly bare white room.

Lopez calls for big, peaceful demonstrations next Saturday. He also says he and Ceballos are starting a hunger strike to demand the release of political prisoners, the end of repression, and a set date for legislative elections, which the administration has promised to hold at some point in November or December.

Venezuela's ombudsman, Tarek William Saab, said on Twitter that he had met with Lopez on Saturday. He said Lopez had been disciplined after a cellphone was found in his cell in violation of prison rules. He said it was the third mobile phone found in Lopez's cell in four months.

Ceballos' legal team said earlier that he had phoned his mother before dawn Saturday to say he had been moved to one of Venezuela's most violent penitentiaries, in the town of San Juan de los Morros.

That was later denied by Saab, who said he had met with Ceballos at a different, recently opened jail in the same town. In a string of messages posted on Twitter, Saab said Ceballos was in good health and the ombudsman's office would continue to monitor the conditions of his confinement.

Ceballos was removed as mayor of the western city of San Cristobal during anti-government protests last year. It was unclear why he was transferred to a regular prison.

The move comes less than a week after Ceballos from behind bars won a primary in San Cristobal to stand as the opposition alliance's candidate in this year's legislative elections. Under Venezuelan law, a win in the general election could free him from jail because legislators receive immunity from prosecution during their terms.

Ceballos was arrested in March 2014 and quickly convicted on charges of disobeying authority for his refusal to remove barricades set up by demonstrators in San Cristobal. Although he completed that one-year sentence, he was ordered held while awaiting trial on more serious charges tied to his support for protests in the city, which kicked off a nationwide wave of anti-government unrest.