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Venezuelan court upholds sentence against opposition leader

FILE - In this Feb 18, 2014 file photo, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, dressed in white and holding up flowers, is taken into custody by Bolivarian National Guards, in Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuela's supreme court rejected an appeal and ratified on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, the 14 year sentence given to Lopez. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra, File)

FILE - In this Feb 18, 2014 file photo, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, dressed in white and holding up flowers, is taken into custody by Bolivarian National Guards, in Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuela's supreme court rejected an appeal and ratified on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, the 14 year sentence given to Lopez. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra, File)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela's highest court upheld a 14-year prison sentence for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, ruling a day after U.S. President Donald Trump called for his release during a White House meeting with the activist's wife.

Lopez was found guilty of inciting violence during a wave of deadly anti-government protests in 2014, a conviction widely condemned as politically-motivated by many foreign governments and human rights groups. One of the prosecutors in the case, who has since sought asylum in the U.S., even said he was under orders from the government to arrest Lopez despite the lack of evidence.

Thursday's ruling on an appeal by Lopez's defence makes the conviction final, leaving international tribunals that Venezuela's government is unlikely to recognize as his last resort.

Lilian Tintori, Lopez's wife, denounced the ruling as illegitimate.

"Any sentence by this dictatorship is completely nulled," Tintori said upon arrival Thursday to Caracas' airport following her meeting with Trump. She was welcomed by dozens of supporters shouting "Freedom" and anti-Maduro slogans before being harassed, sometimes physically, by pro-government supporters.

A day earlier, Trump tweeted a photo of himself with Tintori demanding that the opposition leader be let out "immediately." Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez accused Trump of committing an "aggression" against Venezuela.

The development comes during a turbulent week for U.S.-Venezuela relations.

The U.S. on Monday slapped sanctions on Venezuelan Vice-President Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of playing a major role in international drug trafficking. Maduro responded by pulling the plug in Venezuela on CNN's Spanish affiliate, which he accused of paving the way for the decision by implicating El Aissami in a recent report on Venezuela's alleged selling of passports to members of a Middle Eastern terror group.

The government considers the CNN report a fabrication. But press freedom groups condemned the decision to kick out CNN, a vital source of information for Venezuelans given the dominant role of state-run media on the airwaves and in print. A small protest was held Thursday outside the offices of the telecommunications regulator in Caracas.

"When authoritarian regimes around the world start attacking journalism like that, we all have a problem," said Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide.

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