CARACAS Jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez went on trial in Venezuela on Wednesday, accused of masterminding anti-government protests that turned violent and left 43 people dead.
Days after the demonstrations began in mid-February, Lopez turned himself in to authorities and has been in a military jail since, but protests continued for about three months.
A Caracas court heard accusations against him of inciting crime and being the intellectual author of damages and arson.
Nearly 900 people were also injured in the worst explosion of violence in the South American OPEC member for a decade, as activists opposed to President Nicolas Maduro faced off with government supporters and state security forces.
Some 87 people remain behind bars, including 16 state security officials, after a traumatic period for Venezuela that left the opposition movement divided between hardliners and moderates, and the government shaken but intact.
Asked to comment about the trial at a news conference in his presidential palace, Maduro, describing the question as "provocative", lambasted Lopez and urged punishment.
"The leader of the ultra-right is responsible for crimes, violence, destruction, (loss of) human lives. He planned it. He's a pawn of the gringos (Americans), not just now, but from very young. He has a messianic vision, that he was born to be a leader, the president of Venezuela," he said.
"He has to pay, and he's going to pay. Justice must be done. And to the Bolivarian people, I say, stand firm against fascists," Maduro added, using a term adopted by his predecessor Hugo Chavez who idolized independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Lopez, 43, and his supporters say he is a scapegoat for spontaneous protests borne out of frustration with a dictatorial government, failed economic policies, wasted oil revenues, and daily hardships from product shortages to soaring prices.
"A strong and powerful government has nothing to fear from criticism, only a weak and insecure government locks up people who express their opinion," Lopez's wife Lilian Tintori said this week during a visit to the United States to publicize the case.
"There's not a single reason to have him in jail. The judicial process is a complete joke."
Fluent in English and from a wealthy family, U.S.-educated Lopez represents a radical opposition wing that believes street action is the only option because authoritarian rule makes democratic change of government impossible.
While treated as a hero in the wealthy Chacaco district of Caracas where he lives and was once mayor, Lopez was unable to ignite poorer sectors against Maduro who casts himself as the political "son" of the wildly popular Chavez.
The government paints Lopez, who is an economist by training, as a dangerous maverick and often reminds Venezuelans of his role in a short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez when he helped arrest a minister and haul him through a mob.
(Editing by Ken Wills)