CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez turned himself in to authorities Tuesday to face what he calls trumped-up homicide charges, after urging supporters to stay in the streets and protest peacefully against the government.
Lopez is accused in the deaths of three people during a Feb. 12 demonstration against government inaction over soaring crime and inflation rates. Clashes between the protesters and government supporters left the three dead and more than 60 injured, with each side blaming the other.
Lopez’s arrest was called baseless by human rights groups and some government figures. Disturbances were reported Tuesday in parts of Caracas, the capital, and other cities, including the northern industrial town of Maracay.
Speaking to supporters in the capital, Lopez said he would not flee Venezuela or go into hiding “because it would show we have something to hide.”
Rather, he said he had decided to give himself up to “a corrupt justice system” and continue the fight for political change.
“Our youth have no jobs, no future because of this economic model that has failed,” Lopez said, referring to deepening problems that include double-digit inflation, a rapidly devaluing currency and food scarcities.
President Nicolas Maduro, speaking of the arrest before a crowd of oil union members in downtown Caracas, described Lopez as “political chief of the fascist right wing.” He also dismissed calls from leaders such as Presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Sebastian Piñera of Chile to respect the political rights of the opposition.
“Enough of people interfering in the problems of Venezuela,” Maduro said, contending that all citizens have political freedom. “Venezuelans will resolve our own problems.... We have contained the attack for the time being.”
The arrest came a day after Venezuela ordered the expulsion of three American diplomats. A spokesman for the U.S. State Department called the expulsion an attempt to distract Venezuelans from a “grave situation it faces.”
Before his arrest, Lopez sent out a message from his Twitter account thanking supporters. “Change lies within each of us. Don’t give up!” he wrote.
Earlier, an alliance of opposition parties said authorities were trying to prevent protesters from gathering in downtown Caracas to march in support of Lopez, for whom an arrest warrant was issued in connection with last week’s deadly demonstration.
Protesters reported on social media that police and national guard units had set up blockades at several points in the city and were telling them they would not be allowed through to the march’s starting point.
In a statement issued Tuesday morning, the opposition Democratic Unity coalition, known by its initials, MUD, said that the government had deployed police and military personnel to “impede citizens from their right to peaceful assembly, showing odious discrimination in allowing some the right to express themselves and others not.”
The statement referred to large gatherings of government loyalists that were allowed to form to show support for the beleaguered Maduro.
Caracas and other cities have seen rising unrest since Feb. 12, when student marches turned violent. Marchers said armed government vigilantes opened fire on them, while Maduro blamed the protesters for the bloodshed.
Luis Salamanca, a political science professor at Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, said Lopez’s surrender was an “act of courage, knowing his imprisonment was unjust.... With this, he is winning the leadership of the opposition risking his life. This will make him into a political symbol and at the same time put the government in a delicate position.”
Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas chief of Human Rights Watch, was critical over the lack of proof of a crime and said the “international community should demand Lopez’s “immediate release.... The arrest is an egregious violation of one of the basic principles of due process, that you can’t jail someone without evidence.”
Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota, Colombia, respectively.