Former Mandela lawyer to join defense of Venezuela's jailed activist

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez is escorted by national guards before handing himself over in Caracas February 18, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

CARACAS (Reuters) - A Canadian Member of Parliament and human rights lawyer who helped defend Nelson Mandela will join jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez's legal team, the South American politician's party said on Thursday. Irwin Cotler, a former Justice Minister and Attorney General for Canada, will visit Caracas in coming days to "actively join" Lopez's defense, the Popular Will party said in a statement. He has previously served as Counsel to South Africa's Mandela, as well as prisoners of conscience in the former Soviet Union, Latin America, and Asia, according to his website. Lopez is accused of masterminding last year's anti-Venezuelan government protests that turned violent and left 43 people dead. He will complete a year in jail on Feb. 18. Opposition leaders call Lopez a political prisoner who was simply exercising the right to protest. The United States government and the United Nations have called for his release. Fluent in English and from a wealthy family, U.S.-educated Lopez represents a radical opposition wing that believes street action is the only option because authoritarian rule makes democratic change of government impossible. Nicolas Maduro's government paints Lopez, an economist by training, as a dangerous maverick and often reminds Venezuelans of his role in a short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez when he helped arrest a minister and haul him through a mob. (Reporting by Eyanir Chinea; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Bernard Orr)