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FILE PHOTO: Freddy Guevara, first Vice-President of the National Assembly and lawmaker of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties (MUD), smiles during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, July 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Andrew Cawthorne and Deisy Buitrago
CARACAS (Reuters) - From his refuge at the Chilean ambassador's home, Venezuela's deputy congressional leader has defended "civil disobedience" against President Nicolas Maduro and urged demoralized opponents to unite and oust him in a presidential vote.
"All the focus of our struggle now is to have truly free presidential elections," opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara said in a video released overnight after he entered the Chilean diplomatic residence over the weekend.
Venezuela is due to hold a presidential vote in 2018. But Maduro's foes are demanding reforms to the pro-government election board first, alleging that otherwise it will be rigged.
Authorities have revoked Guevara's parliamentary immunity and want to put the 31-year-old leader of hardline Popular Will party on trial for instigating violence in protests.
Guevara, who is vice president of the opposition-led National Assembly legislature, was at the forefront of anti-Maduro street demonstrations between April and July that led to at least 125 deaths and thousands of injuries.
"The usurpers of the Supreme Court and State Prosecutor's Office accuse me of crimes I have not committed but motivated by events I do recognise," he said in the video.
"Yes, I called protests and believe in civil disobedience. I organised them and will do it again. Never will they convince me, those who were in the street, nor the international community, that we are guilty when you murdered us."
Chief prosecutor Tarek Saab, who recently replaced a dissident prosecutor who fled the country, presented the case against Guevara to the pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly superbody, which has sidelined congress, in a session late on Monday.
'NO MORE HOSTAGES, MADURO'
Saab blamed Guevara for the shooting, stoning and stabbing security officials, paying adolescents to protest, and repeated exhorting violence.
"He didn't care who died," Saab said.
Maduro, 54, has long had his sights on Guevara, nicknaming him "Chucky" in reference to a horror film's murderous doll.
Popular Will founder Leopoldo Lopez is under house arrest, for his role in the 2014 protests, and the party is under constant threat of being banned for "terrorism."
"Mr. Nicolas Maduro, sadly for you, we have taken the decision not to give you any more hostages," Guevara added in his video, justifying his decision to take refuge rather than face trial like Lopez did.
Earlier this year the Chilean ambassador's opulent residence in Caracas' Country Club zone took in five pro-opposition magistrates threatened with jail time.
They eventually crossed the border secretly to Colombia before flying to Santiago to be received by Michelle Bachelet's government, which has joined a chorus of major Latin American nations in denouncing Maduro for rights abuses.
Critics say Maduro has turned the OPEC nation into a dictatorship by twisting elections and detaining opponents.
His supporters say Maduro, a former bus driver and foreign minister, is resisting a U.S.-backed push for a coup, and insist Venezuela's election process is impeccable.
In another overnight development, a local journalist missing since Saturday turned up at dawn wearing only his underwear on a motorway outside Caracas. Jesus Medina, who works for the DolarToday currency and political website that virulently opposes Maduro, said he was kidnapped, tortured and threatened before being released.
"To inform is not a crime," Medina said in a video, showing injuries on his face. He declined to give more details of the kidnapping, including the identity of his captors, because the incident was under investigation.
(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Deisy Buitrago; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Jeffrey Benkoe)