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Venezuela pursues criminal charges against opposition figure in alleged plot against president

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CARACAS, Venezuela — A leading opposition figure learned Wednesday she is being charged with involvement in an alleged plot to kill President Nicolas Maduro, a move she called an attempt to silence her and other critics of Venezuela's socialist government.

Maria Corina Machado, a former member of the National Assembly, left a private meeting with prosecutors at the Prosecutor General's Office after authorities informed her that she would be charged with conspiracy. The charge carries a maximum of 16 years in prison.

Her case will now be assigned to a judge who will formally charge Machado and decide whether she should be detained pending trial.

"All the accusations and the supposed evidence are false," Machado told reporters.

She has repeatedly said she has no knowledge of any plot against Maduro and portrays the allegations as political persecution.

"I have not committed any crime," she said before meeting with prosecutors. "This is the price I have to pay for speaking the truth in Venezuela."

PHOTO: Former Congresswoman and opposition leader Maria Corina Machado holds up the Venezuelan flag outside of the Attorney General Office in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014. Machado appeared in court to answer questions from prosecutors after being charged with conspiring to assassinate Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro. In June, Machado, 47, was prohibited from leaving the country after she was removed from her National Assembly seat by the ruling party. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
Former Congresswoman and opposition leader Maria Corina Machado holds up the Venezuelan flag outside of the Attorney General Office in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014. Machado appeared in court to answer questions from prosecutors after being charged with conspiring to assassinate Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro. In June, Machado, 47, was prohibited from leaving the country after she was removed from her National Assembly seat by the ruling party. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the charges against Machado "raise concerns once again about Venezuela's arbitrary use of prosecutorial power to silence and punish government critics."

Harf also repeated earlier U.S. calls for Venezuela to release dozens of students detained while protesting against the government as well as opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and two opposition mayors, Daniel Ceballos and Enzo Scarano.

Authorities announced the investigation last March, claiming a plot was being formed against Maduro and others in the government involving Machado and several other opposition figures. Officials have not provided any evidence publicly beyond some allegedly incriminating emails. Machado has been barred from leaving the country since June.

Tomas Arias, one of her lead attorneys, said the defense had asked for specific proof of any link between Machado and what he called the "supposed plot." Authorities have provided nothing in response, he said.

Prosecutors have issued arrest orders for several other opposition figures for their alleged roles in the supposed plot, several of whom have left Venezuela.

Since narrowly winning election last year to succeed his mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez, Maduro has claimed five assassination attempts against him and more than a dozen acts of sabotage and conspiracy.

Oil-dependent Venezuela is under increasing financial strain because of plunging world oil prices, forcing the government to cut spending amid widespread shortages and the world's highest inflation.

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PHOTO: Former Congresswoman and opposition leader Maria Corina Machado, left, greets supporters as she exits the Attorney General Office in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014. Machado appeared in court to testify after being charged with conspiring to assassinate Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro. Machado, 47, was prohibited from leaving the country in June after she was removed from her National Assembly seat by the ruling party. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
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