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Venezuelans to protest for opposition leader's release

CARACAS, Venezuela – Jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has called on his supporters to hold a "massive" protest on Saturday, February 18, after United States President Donald Trump incensed Caracas by calling for his release.

Lopez, the founder of Popular Will – one of the most hardline parties opposing President Nicolas Maduro – is serving a nearly 14-year sentence on charges of inciting unrest at anti-government protests in 2014.

Saturday marks the third anniversary of his arrest, and Popular Will has called a protest in Caracas under the banner "No more dictatorship."

In an audio message recorded in his jail cell at the Ramo Verde military prison, Lopez urged Venezuelans to join in.

"My Venezuelan brothers and sisters, we would like to invite you to a forceful, massive protest on the streets of Venezuela this Saturday," he said. (READ: Venezuela's Maduro seeks papal help in new opposition talks)

The message comes after Trump met with Lopez's wife on Wednesday, February 15, and tweeted that Venezuela should "immediately" free Lopez, whom he called a "political prisoner."

Venezuela should allow Leopoldo Lopez, a political prisoner & husband of @liliantintori (just met w/ @marcorubio) out of prison immediately. pic.twitter.com/bt8Xhdo7al — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2017

The following day, Venezuela's Supreme Court upheld Lopez's sentence. His lawyer said he would appeal to international courts. (READ: Venezuela opposition renews assault against president)

US-Venezuelan tensions have soared since Trump's tweet, with Maduro warning the new American leader not to provoke him.

Lopez's sentence has been strongly condemned by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union.

The opposition leader has managed to smuggle a handful of video and audio recordings out of jail. His lawyers say he is punished each time with measures such as bans on family visits.

Venezuela's socialist government, which is fending off a punishing economic crisis that has pummeled its popularity, denies Lopez is a political prisoner.

It blames him for the deaths of 43 people during the 2014 protests.– Rappler.com