September 16, 2015 / 3:17 AM / 3 years ago

Venezuela was saved from a 'Pinochet,' leader says after opponent jailed

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela has been spared a Pinochet-like figure, president Nicolas Maduro said on Tuesday, in an apparent defense of a near 14-year jail sentence handed to opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez after deadly protests last year.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures as he speaks during his weekly broadcast "In contact with Maduro" in Caracas in this handout picture provided by Miraflores Palace on September 15, 2015. REUTERS/Miraflores Palace/Handout via Reuters

Hardline opposition leader Lopez was convicted on Thursday of inciting 2014 anti-government protests that led to violence that killed 43 people. He was found guilty of provoking arson, violence and damage to public property and sentenced to 13 years and nine months in prison.

“We’re vaccinating the fatherland of a ‘Pinochet’,” socialist leader Maduro said on Tuesday night, referring to former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

He did not name Lopez directly.

“If Venezuela has to take on the entire world and end up alone to defend its right to peace, justice and democracy, that’s what we’ll do. Listen carefully, Washington,” he said during his weekly televised show ‘In Contact with Maduro.’

Lopez’s sentencing drew swift international condemnation. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was “deeply troubled”, calling the charges “illegitimate,” and urged the release of all jailed government opponents.

Venezuela later accused the United States of jeopardizing a nascent rapprochement between the two ideological foes with “insolent” criticism.

Maduro’s socialist government says Lopez is a Washington-backed criminal seeking to stage a coup under the guise of peaceful protests.

“Am I a grand democrat if I let myself be toppled?” Maduro said during the hours-long show from the presidential palace.

“So that the country ends up like Libya, fractured, in chaos, in divisions, with deaths. Then Maduro will be a grand man that deserves all of Washington’s praise?”

Government opponents say it is Maduro, not his rivals, who is a delusional autocrat. They say the government is inventing coup plots to clamp down on dissent ahead of December’s parliamentary elections they are forecast to lose.

According to Lopez’s lawyers, only two defense witnesses were accepted, compared with 108 for the prosecution, during his mainly closed-door trial.

Maduro draws parallels between Washington-backed dictators during the Cold War and Lopez, a U.S.-educated former mayor who is married to a former kitesurfing champion.

“The ‘Pinochets’ of this day and age aren’t vulgar gorillas, with my apologies to gorillas, who are noble animals,” he said.

“No, they aren’t vulgar gorillas like the ones they imposed in Uruguay and Argentina and in all of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. Now they paint them with marketing but in the end they’re just as fascist,” Maduro said.

More than 3,000 people are estimated to have “disappeared” - presumed killed by the military government - during Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship.

Editing by Paul Tait

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