Venezuela begins releasing 39 jailed opposition activists

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela on Friday began releasing a group of opposition activists jailed for protesting against President Nicolas Maduro, a move that the government said would foster dialogue but that critics dismissed as a token gesture by a dictatorship.

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Opposition critics and rights groups say Maduro’s government is still holding hundreds of political prisoners who were jailed for leading anti-government street demonstrations, primarily in 2014 and 2017. About 170 people died during the protests.

A group of 39 opposition activists will be released from prison including Daniel Ceballos, former mayor of the restive western city of San Cristobal, according to a list published by Supreme Court president Maikel Moreno.

The list, posted on Moreno’s Facebook page, does not include Leopoldo Lopez, former mayor of the Caracas district of Chacao who is the best known of Maduro’s critics to be jailed.

Lopez, originally arrested in 2014, was granted house arrest last year.

“The Truth Commission has made this recommendation at the request of President Nicolas Maduro,” said Delcy Rodriguez, president of the all-powerful Constituent Assembly, in televised comments. “He said that this is the path, the path of dialogue, the path of unity, the path of peace.”

Maduro was re-elected on May 20 for a six-year term, and last month called for a prisoner release to foster good will.

He says the country is victim of an “economic war” led by the opposition with the backing of the United States and that opposition protests were in fact efforts to overthrow him.

The vast majority of the opposition boycotted the May election on the grounds that it was rigged. They say Maduro has trampled on basic democratic freedoms and is leading the country into a hyperinflationary economic collapse.

Legislators from the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which has had most of its powers stripped by the Supreme Court since Maduro’s ruling Socialist Party lost its majority in 2016, called the prisoner release a farce.

“Right now the government is staging a political show with the release of prisoners, but in Venezuela all Venezuelans are prisoners,” said legislator Tomas Guanipa.

“We are happy for the political prisoners who have been freed, but there are 30 million Venezuelans.”

Venezuelan legislators were in the Colombian border city of Cucuta on Friday for a meeting of congressional delegations from around Latin America to discuss Venezuela’s crisis.

Reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte in Caracas and Anggy Polanco in Cucuta; Editing by Susan Thomas and Frances Kerry