Jailed Venezuelan opposition leaders start hunger strike

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– Leopoldo López called for fresh protests in video leaked from prison where he has been held for past 15 months.

SAO PAULO – Jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has announced he started a hunger strike, urging his followers and opponents of President Nicolas Maduro’s government to protest next Saturday.

Lopez, who was jailed 15 months ago for calling for anti-government protests in 2014, spoke in a video recorded in his cell in the Ramo Verde military prison, some 25 kilometers (15 miles) outside the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

Lopez accused the government of “doing anything to stay in power” in the video, uploaded to YouTube by his wife, human rights activist Lilian Tintori.

“In the year and three months that I have been in jail, the situation in Venezuela has only deteriorated: more inflation, more scarcity [of staple products], greater insecurity, more corruption,” Lopez said.

The opposition leader said he was beginning a hunger strike with “one concrete petition: the freedom of political prisoners”. He also demanded an end to the “persecution” of government opposition figures, a date for parliamentary elections this year, and a march in all states against the Maduro government on Saturday, insisting on “no violence of any kind”.

Fellow opposition leader Daniel Ceballos, former mayor of the western city of San Cristobal, where the protests began last year, will also begin a hunger strike, López said.

Tintori said on Twitter that both her husband Lopez and Ceballos had endured “days of injustice and darkness.” Local media reported that a state ombudsman had confirmed that Lopez had been punished for possession of a mobile phone within the prison walls.

Ceballos was transferred later on Saturday to another jail further from Caracas, described in local media as “one of the worst in the country”. His wife, Patricia, said on Twitter she “fears for his health and life” and that she was not being allowed to see him.

Last year’s anti-government protests led to the deaths of some 43 people on both sides of the political divide.

Lopez turned himself in on Feb. 18, 2014, to face a raft of charges after calling for rallies that resulted in deadly violence; the most severe counts – including terrorism and murder – were, however, quickly dropped.

His trial for lesser charges, including inciting arson and criminal gatherings, continues.

A number of human rights organizations have slammed the trial and called for his immediate release, and in December the European Union’s chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini, raised “serious concerns” about “continuous arbitrary arrests” against the political opposition being witnessed in Venezuela.

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