A Venezuelan judge on Wednesday formally charged opposition leader Maria Corina Machado with conspiracy to kill President Nicolas Maduro and told her that she faces a maximum prison sentence of eight to 16 years if convicted.
Six other prominent opposition figures were named in the complaint, which said the plot sought to "disturb the peace of the nation," according to a statement issued by prosecutors. The investigation of the alleged conspiracy began in March when the country was convulsed by nationwide demonstrations against the Maduro government, protests that Machado encouraged and led.
It was unclear what evidence the government has against Machado, 47, a former National Assembly member, who is one of Maduro's most persistent and harsh critics. The judge told her that she would have an opportunity to "prove her innocence" before judgment is passed.
Maduro has said in public speeches that there is incriminating evidence against Machado in emails intercepted by government investigators. This year, Machado was banned from the National Assembly after the legislative body's president, Diosdado Cabello, accused her of treason for supporting the nationwide student-led protests against rising crime and economic mismanagement.
In February, the government jailed former Caracas borough Mayor Leopoldo Lopez, another leading opposition leader, for allegedly inciting the protesters to violence in demonstrations that left 41 dead. Both Lopez and Machado insisted they encouraged only peaceful protests.
Despite international pleas that he be freed, including a demand from a U.N. human rights panel, Lopez remains in prison.
In comments before her appearance at a Caracas court, Machado denied the charges and said the accusation is a sign of "desperation" on the part of the government to stifle criticism while the nation is sinking deeper into economic and political crisis.
"I have not committed any crime and there is no evidence against me," Machado told Globovision TV news. Scores of supporters accompanied Machado to her court appearance Wednesday morning.
Machado also vowed to continue to "participate in and support all forms of protest and mobilization of our youths, workers, housewives, union members and all those who feel their rights have been violated."
Human Rights Watch's director for Latin America, Jose Miguel Vivanco, issued a statement saying Machado is facing "a presumption of guilt."
"It's very difficult to imagine that the case against Machado for alleged participation in a plan to assassinate the president can be anything but a farce," Vivanco said in an email.
The other six alleged co-conspirators are all prominent opposition figures, all of whom are believed to be currently outside Venezuela. They include former Gov. Henrique Salas Romer, former presidential candidate Diego Arria and a former member of the state oil company's board of directors, Pedro Mario Burelli.
The six are subject to arrest, while Machado for the time being is free. In brief emailed comments, Burelli said that in his case the government had "fabricated" email evidence.
Venezuelan blogger and Maduro critic Francisco Toro said in comments posted after Machado's court appearance that the government has systematically targeted the former legislator for harassment and physical abuse.
"Today, attention was focused on whether she would be jailed – she wasn't. Yet, even before she's jailed – and that could happen any time now – virtually all of her rights have been violated," Toro wrote.