By Andrew Cawthorne and Deisy Buitrago
CARACAS (Reuters) – An appeal hearing into Venezuela’s most prominent jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez ended on Saturday, with he and supporters saying the nearly 14-year sentence for inciting violence should be immediately overturned.
“I am innocent of the crimes accused,” said Lopez, 45, a hardline foe of President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government who has been in jail since February 2014.
“I assume my full responsibility for denouncing the Venezuelan state as corrupt, inefficient, anti-democratic and repressive, as it is my constitutional right to do,” he added, according to an audio from the hearing released by his team.
Lopez’s party Popular Will said only his mother and one lawyer were allowed into the Appeals Court for the session which began on Friday and ended around 2 a.m. local time (0600 GMT) Saturday.
Outside the court in downtown Caracas, supporters waited with banners demanding “Free Leopoldo!”, while security officers kept watch of the area where government and opposition supporters have clashed during previous hearings in the Lopez case.
A decision on the appeal is due in 10 days, his party said, though there was no word from the judiciary or government.
Lopez was imprisoned for fomenting 2014 anti-government protests that spiraled into violence, killing 43 people on both sides. His supporters and rights groups say his imprisonment was a travesty of justice.
Lopez was accused of causing damages and fire, public incitement, and planning to commit crimes.
Though the Harvard-educated Lopez had publicly called for peaceful resistance to the Maduro government and was behind bars during most of the unrest, prosecutors said his speeches sent subliminal messages and constituted a call to violence.
But one of the prosecutors, Franklin Nieves, fled to the United States last year, saying he was pressured to frame Lopez.
“You know we received threats and orders to fabricate that case against Leopoldo Lopez. This is the opportunity to rectify,” he said in a video message aimed at the judge and prosecutors at the appeal.
Officials and many grassroots “Chavistas”, as supporters of the ruling movement are known after former leader Hugo Chavez, view Lopez as a dangerous radical in the pocket of Venezuela’s wealthy elite and the U.S. government.
During a failed coup attempt against Chavez in 2002, Lopez, an economist who wants to replace 17 years of socialism with business-friendly policies in OPEC member Venezuela, helped organize the arrest of a cabinet member.
“I guarantee you Leopoldo Lopez and the killers of the (2014) protests will stay in jail because they must pay for their crimes,” said Diosdado Cabello, the No. 2 in Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party.
(Editing by Clelia Oziel)