CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Hundreds of Venezuelans marched Saturday to demand the release of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, the annual demonstration taking on added urgency after President Donald Trump met with the activist's wife and his administration slapped drug sanctions on the country's vice president.
One small group held up signs reading "No More Dictatorship" and blocked traffic along Caracas' main highway as the opponents of President Nicolas Maduro gathered at different points throughout the capital and other in cities around the world to mark the third anniversary of Lopez's arrest.
The U.S. State Department on Saturday repeated Trump's call for Lopez's immediate release after meeting with the activist's wife in the Oval Office.
"We call for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience, respect for the rule of law, the freedom of the press, the separation of constitutional powers within the government, and the restoration of a democratic process that reflects the will of the Venezuelan people," the State Department said in a statement.
Lopez last year was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison in a trial marred by irregularities for inciting violence during anti-government protests. Venezuela's Supreme Court upheld the conviction this week in the face of widespread condemnation by many foreign governments and the United Nations, which consider Lopez a political prisoner.
In comments made by Lopez in jail and passed along by family and lawyers to Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, the opposition leader said he had no regrets about his decision to turn himself in rather than seek exile, as he claims the government had offered.
In the correspondence, Lopez describes a daily routine of exercise, reading and prayer to overcome the hardships of solitary confinement that has kept him isolated from the other inmates at the military prison outside Caracas where he is held. The government in the past has cast doubt on Lopez's description of his confinement but doesn't allow any visits except by the prisoner's family and lawyers, making it impossible to independently verify the conditions.
"I have no doubt I'd do it again," he said, according to the El Tiempo report published Saturday. "Presenting myself before an unjust judiciary gave me an opportunity to confront the lies, abuse of power and show the need to change the system at its roots."
More than 100 political activists are held in Venezuelan prisons. The Union of South America Nations had been trying to secure their release as part of a Vatican-backed dialogue to ease Venezuela's economic crisis and political gridlock.
But those talks have since collapsed, leaving the perennially-fractious opposition split between moderates who had supported the dialogue and hardliners like members of Lopez's Popular Will party, who organized the Saturday protests and have pushed for a more combative stance.
On Friday, Jesus Torrealba resigned his post as secretary general of the Democratic Unity alliance as part of an overhaul that will see decision-making decentralized among the nine major parties forming the opposition group.