Argentine human rights lawyer is latest Venezuelan detainee to flee

CARACAS (Reuters) - An Argentine-Venezuelan rights lawyer became the latest activist to escape detention by President Nicolas Maduro’s government and flee Venezuela over the weekend.

“I am so happy to be free, but so sad for what’s left behind,” Marcelo Crovato, 51, told Reuters after reaching Colombia from where he was flying to Argentina later on Monday.

Crovato was detained at his Caracas home in 2014 while working for a rights group defending young protesters during a wave of demonstrations against Maduro’s socialist government. Forty-three people were killed and thousands were injured during the unrest.

He spent 10 months at a prison where he had once served as director, before being granted house arrest.

Speaking by telephone from Colombia, Crovato declined to give full details of his escape for fear of retaliation against friends or relatives by Venezuelan intelligence agents.

“I was planning it for months after I concluded there was no possibility of justice in Venezuela,” Crovato said.

“It was an incredible sensation crossing the border. I kept telling myself ‘I’m invisible, I’m like a ghost passing through, they won’t stop me’. When I saw the ‘welcome to Colombia’ sign, my eyes welled up and I thought ‘I did it!’” he said.

The lawyer was due to fly to Buenos Aires with his wife and two young sons who left Venezuela before him.

He has Argentine nationality via his father, and was hoping to meet President Mauricio Macri, one of the region’s fiercest critics of Maduro over rights and democracy.

The Venezuelan government did not respond to a request for comment on Crovato’s case. Critics say Maduro has turned Venezuela into a dictatorship, while he accuses foes of plotting with the United States to overthrow him and seize the nation’s oil.

Crovato’s departure was the latest in a trickle of escapes by detained activists. Prominent opposition leader Antonio Ledezma fled to Spain via Colombia in November and former opposition mayor David Smolansky settled in the United States the same month after creeping over the border to Brazil.

Several hundred activists remain held, most notably Leopoldo Lopez, the hardline leader of Popular Will party who is under house arrest in Caracas. “My commitment now is to fight for the other political prisoners,” said Crovato.

Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Frances Kerry