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Trial of Venezuela opposition leader nears close as Leopoldo Lopez prepares final statement

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CARACAS, Venezuela — The more-than-yearlong trial of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez entered its final stages Friday as the defense delivered closing statements in a courtroom not open to the public or to journalists.

The hearing was delayed for hours as the court waited for one of Lopez's four co-defendants, 19-year-old Marco Coello, to appear. In the afternoon, the Prosecutor's Office announced that Coello caught a flight to Miami on Thursday.

The arguments ended at midnight, and are expected to resume next Thursday, with Lopez delivering a final statement. The judge could issue a verdict immediately afterward.

Lopez is charged with inciting violence in his role as the leader of a protest movement in 2014, and could face more than 10 years in prison. His co-defendants are accused of colluding with him to hijack peaceful protests.

He denies calling for violence, saying he only called for peaceful protests, and his supporters say pro-government forces were to blame for most of the clashes that broke out.

The four student protesters charged alongside Lopez had all been released on probation. Their parents seemed optimistic at a hearing earlier this week, saying the government rarely re-arrests those who have been released. Coello spent more than 100 days in jail before being granted conditional release last year.

Hundreds of his supporters gathered in the streets outside the court under piercing morning sun to demand Lopez's release, though few thought it likely that he would be found innocent. They dispersed by nightfall, but another group of supporters took up a vigil in the posh eastern Caracas district where Lopez once was mayor.

Opposition figures delivered statements calling on President Nicolas Maduro to roll back what they say has been a consistent policy of attacking and imprisoning critics. Maduro was in Qatar on Friday, continuing a multi-nation tour to seek loans and action on oil prices as the socialist South American country's economy sinks deeper into recession.

As they have done for each hearing during the 13 months of proceedings, armed soldiers shut down the area around the courthouse.

U.S. officials have made Lopez's release a key demand for normalizing diplomatic relations.


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PHOTO: FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2014 file photo, Leopoldo Lopez is flanked by Bolivarian National Guards after Lopez surrendered to authorities in Caracas, Venezuela. The 19-month trial of the Venezuelan opposition leader is coming to a close on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015 as the imprisoned politician prepares to give his final remarks in a closed courtroom. Lopez is charged with inciting violence in his role as leader of a bloody protest movement in 2014, and could face more than 10 years in prison. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2014 file photo, Leopoldo Lopez is flanked by Bolivarian National Guards after Lopez surrendered to authorities in Caracas, Venezuela. The 19-month trial of the Venezuelan opposition leader is coming to a close on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015 as the imprisoned politician prepares to give his final remarks in a closed courtroom. Lopez is charged with inciting violence in his role as leader of a bloody protest movement in 2014, and could face more than 10 years in prison. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra, File)

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PHOTO: A supporter of Leopoldo Lopez shouts "Freedom for Leopoldo" while holding his poster outside court in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, Sept. 4, 2015. The 19-month trial of the Venezuelan opposition leader is coming to a close on Friday as the imprisoned politician prepares to give his final remarks in a closed courtroom. Lopez is charged with inciting violence in his role as leader of a bloody protest movement in 2014, and could face more than 10 years in prison. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
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