Caracas: Supporters of jailed politician Leopoldo Lopez and pro-government activists clashed on Thursday in Caracas outside his trial, as tensions spiked over an approaching verdict for Venezuela`s best-known imprisoned opposition leader.
Lopez supporters, who brandished images of the U.S.-educated hardliner and chanted "Freedom for Leopoldo," said supporters of socialist President Nicolas Maduro attacked them and that one of them suffered a heart attack during the unrest.
"Our activist Horacio Blanco has died following a heart attack in the midst of an ambush led by those on the regime`s payroll," Lopez`s Popular Will party said.
Fist fights broke out after Lopez`s wife Lilian Tintori arrived in front of the heavily-guarded Palace of Justice. Reuters correspondents saw sticks, bottles and rocks thrown.
Red-clad government backers yelling "Fascist, terrorist, assassin!" burned the orange flags of Lopez`s Voluntad Popular party and fought with opposition supporters, some of whom ran away in a confusing melee of hundreds in a square near the courthouse.
U.S.-based TV network Telemundo said its freelance correspondent Daniel Garrido was attacked and was awaiting medical care in Caracas. He also had his equipment stolen, the broadcaster said in a statement condemning the incident.
Various civilians were also injured, the opposition coalition said.
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There was no immediate comment from the government. The Information Ministry said it was looking into the incident.
Lopez, 44, is accused of inciting 2014 anti-government protests that spiralled into violence killing more than 40 people.
He was allowed three hours to defend himself in court on Thursday, with a verdict likely coming soon, his lawyer Roberto Marrero said. Journalists and some Western diplomatic observers were not allowed to attend the trial.
"I don`t trust Venezuelan justice," said Lopez supporter Yulymar Mendez, 45, donning a t-shirt with his face.
"Leopoldo is innocent. He`s in jail because he promises a better Venezuela, whereas this government has us hungry and there`s no freedom."
Supporters say Lopez, a popular ex- mayor of the Chacao district of Caracas, is a scapegoat for Maduro amid a ballooning economic crisis that has led to shortages of goods ranging from flour to condoms.
The U.S. government and the United Nations have called for his release.
For many low-income supporters of the late Hugo Chavez, however, wealthy Lopez is a dangerous coup-monger disconnected form the needs of most Venezuelans.
"Lopez caused many deaths," said Delcy Diaz, 45, who works in a government-run "social mission", speaking outside the court. "They don`t have a need for a better quality of life, that`s why they do this," she said, referring to last year`s violence.
Lopez`s critics also point to his attempts to unseat Chavez in 2002. During the failed coup attempt, he helped organise the illegal arrest of a cabinet member.