December 24, 2017 / 2:46 PM / 2 months ago

Venezuela frees 36 jailed opponents in Christmas gesture

CARACAS (Reuters) - Three dozen opponents of Venezuela’s socialist government were released from prison and reunited with their families on Sunday as part of a wider Christmas release, a local rights group said.

Lambasted by critics at home and abroad for holding around 270 activists in prison, President Nicolas Maduro’s administration said on Saturday it was freeing 80 of them with alternative sentences like community service.

Thirteen were paraded in front of TV cameras at a meeting with a senior official, Delcy Rodriguez. She harangued them for violence and subversion, but also wished them a happy Christmas.

Alfredo Romero, whose Penal Forum group tracks the detention of activists and protesters, said 36 “political prisoners” had been freed by Sunday morning. But he criticized the government for not giving a blanket amnesty.

“They should release not just some but all of them, and not imprison any more,” he said.

The best-known among the released prisoners were former provincial mayor Alfredo Ramos, opposition electoral adviser Roberto Picon and a dozen policemen who worked for the opposition-run Chacao district of Caracas.

“I‘m happy to be free. I‘m with my family,” Ramos was quoted as saying in local media.

“It was a tough ordeal, very difficult. It was an arbitrary detention, unjust. I didn’t commit any crime.”

‘CRUEL FARCE’

Maduro, the 55-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez, refutes the term “political prisoners”, saying all of the jailed activists were there on legitimate charges of plotting to overthrow his government and promoting violence.

Some 170 people died during two rounds of anti-Maduro street protests in 2014 and earlier this year.

Opponents say they are fighting for freedom against a “dictatorship” that has destroyed the OPEC nation’s economy and democracy. Maduro accuses them of being part of a global right-wing plot to topple him in a coup.

U.S. lawmaker Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a fierce critic of both Venezuela and Cuba’s Communist government, called the pre-Christmas releases in Venezuela a hypocritical gesture.

“Maduro in Venezuela cynically ‘releases’ 80 political prisoners who were actually innocent, parades and humiliates several on state TV ... and expects thanks for Christmas ‘mercy’,” tweeted the Republican U.S. representative from Florida.

“What a cruel farce.”

Nevertheless, the releases could inject life into stuttering mediation talks between Venezuela’s government and opposition due to resume in the Dominican Republic in early January.

The releases “concretely demonstrate the Revolution and President Nicolas Maduro’s firm desire for dialogue,” Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said. “Let’s hope the opposition knows how to interpret this and isolate its violent factors.”

Venezuela’s best-known detained politician is Leopoldo Lopez, who remains under house arrest in Caracas, accused of spearheading violence in 2014.

“Though they have turned his house into a jail, I know his mind is strong and he will keep fighting tirelessly for a better Venezuela,” said his mother Antonieta Lopez, lamenting he was spending a fourth Christmas detained.

Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Mary Milliken

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