Caracas mayor held over alleged coup plot in Venezuela

Marcelo Daniel Brusa
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Supporters of Mayor Antonio Ledezma demonstrate after his arrest in Caracas on February 20, 2015

Supporters of Mayor Antonio Ledezma demonstrate after his arrest in Caracas on February 20, 2015 (AFP Photo/Federico Parra)

Caracas (AFP) - Caracas mayor and opposition politician Antonio Ledezma remained in custody Saturday following his arrest over what Venezuela president Nicolas Maduro alleges is a coup plot financed by the United States.

The opposition politician, re-elected as mayor in 2013, will be held in Ramo Verde prison, the same jail on the outskirts of the capital currently housing another opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, who was arrested a year ago.

Lopez's detention led to a wave of protests against the socialist president, although Ledezma's arrest has spurred only small, spontaneous rallies following government authorization last month for soldiers to use deadly force on demonstrators.

Masked intelligence service agents burst into Ledezma's office late Thursday and hauled him to jail, over the alleged coup plot.

The United States dismissed the claims as "baseless and false," and has condemned Ledezma's arrest, saying the "systematic intimidation" of opposition figures appears to be a bid by the government to divert attention from the country's political and economic challenges.

As evidence of the supposed coup, Maduro has cited a newspaper advertisement signed by Ledezma, Lopez and government critic Maria Machado entitled "National agreement for the transition."

The article details a number of economic and political proposals.

Machado, an ousted lawmaker, is herself under investigation over an alleged plan to assassinate Maduro, though she remains free.

Maduro, who has frequently made claims of coup plots, has seen his popularity plummet to 20 percent amid a growing shortage of basic goods, long lines outside supermarkets and soaring inflation of almost 70 percent in the recession-hit country.

Prosecutors had "achieved custody for the mayor of Caracas," officials said in a statement.

Two-time presidential candidate and opposition leader Henrique Capriles, however, called on the government to produce evidence of the supposed conspiracy.

He added: "Does Maduro think that putting everyone in prison is going to get him 50 popularity points or that he's going to win elections?"

- 'Divert attention' -

Ledezma, 59, was first elected in 2009, but many of his powers have been stripped by the central government over the years.

"Arresting opposition leaders can momentarily divert attention from the economic problems, but it will only get worse," said Luis Vicente Leon, a leading Venezuelan political analyst.

The secretary general of the MUD opposition coalition, Jesus Torrealba, said Ledezma's arrest amounted to a "coup from the state."

Maduro confirmed the mayor's arrest two days after visiting Cuba's retired leader Fidel Castro, a staunch ally since the days of late president Hugo Chavez.

Cuba's foreign ministry said it rebuffs "the economic and media war against the Bolivarian revolution and energetically rejects the statements and meddling actions of the United States and Organization of American States."

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement that "Venezuela's problems cannot be solved by criminalizing legitimate, democratic dissent."

Meanwhile Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, said Ledezma's arrest "has caused alarm" due to the way he was detained.

He called on the government to "stop those acts that lead to a spiral of polarization that envelops Venezuelan society."

At a protest Thursday night, people banged pots, while on Friday, fewer than 200 people attended a demonstration called by Machado.

Protests in recent weeks have been much smaller than last year after the defense minister in late January authorized the use of deadly force to keep public order.