Venezuela opposition leader Capriles says barred from political office

Venezuelan opposition leader and Governor of Miranda state Henrique Capriles speaks during a news conference in Caracas

By Alexandra Ulmer and Diego Oré

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said on Friday he has been banned from holding political office for 15 years, amid what critics say is a crackdown on dissent by the leftist government.

Over the last few days, authorities have accused Capriles of fomenting violence and bloodshed by leading protests against unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.

A ban on holding office would prevent Capriles from running for president again in elections currently scheduled for late 2018.

“URGENT: I inform the country and international public opinion that I am being notified at this very moment of a BAN for 15 years,” tweeted Capriles, who is currently the governor of the central coastal state of Miranda.

There was no immediate comment from authorities.

The Capriles decision will likely stoke tensions in Venezuela, where more than 100 political prisoners are now being held, according to the opposition and rights groups.

Fellow opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, Venezuela’s best-known prisoner, was himself barred from office in 2008, when he was the popular mayor of a Caracas district.

Lopez had been expected to challenge late leader Hugo Chavez in the 2012 presidential election but handed the baton over to Capriles, who lost that vote and another against Maduro in 2013 after Chavez’s death.

Maduro’s government has said that a U.S.-backed business elite is responsible for Venezuela’s economic downturn and that it is trying to foment a coup to impose right-wing rule.

“Mr. Capriles, you’re trying to ignite the country,” Socialist Party official Freddy Bernal said during a government rally on Thursday.

“You’re looking for deaths. Don’t then come like a sissy saying that you’re a political prisoner. Don’t then come crying that you’re being persecuted.”

Thousands of Maduro opponents marched on Thursday to protest a decision by the administration-leaning top court to assume control of the opposition-led congress in what demonstrators said was a lurch toward dictatorship.

While the widely condemned decision was quickly overturned, the opposition has stepped up street protests against Maduro, even though such demonstrations have achieved little in the past.

(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Girish Gupta and Mary Milliken)