June 2, 2018 / 2:00 PM / a year ago

Venezuela frees more anti-Maduro activists

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela was freeing a second group of jailed opponents of President Nicolas Maduro on Saturday after admonishing them for alleged violent crimes against the socialist government.

FILE PHOTO: Angel Vivas, a retired army general and anti-Maduro protester, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Caracas March 31, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The releases followed Maduro’s re-election at a poll last month that was condemned by Western nations as a farce cementing an autocracy in the South American OPEC member.

Casting them as a peace gesture, the government said 40 activists were being released on Saturday, after 39 were freed on Friday.

Many had participated in protests against Maduro in 2014 and 2017 that turned violent killing around 170 people.

Campaigners say the government inflated the list of releases by adding the names of some people who had already been freed and others who are not political prisoners. Local rights group Penal Forum said only 39 activists were among the total freed over the two days.

The best-known among Saturday’s releases were politicians Wilmer Azuaje and Gilber Caro, plus Raul Baduel, the son of a dissident former general, opposition sources said.

“I am so happy, so grateful to God, that this day has come because after more than a year my family reunites,” Azuaje’s wife Kelly told Reuters. “The battle goes on for all the other separated families, for Venezuela, for a better future.”

Foes of Maduro say the releases, while welcome, are insufficient given another roughly 300 people are in jail on what the opposition says are trumped up charges intended to stifle dissent.

Some of those released on Saturday were paraded stony-faced at the colonial-era Yellow House that is home to the Foreign Ministry in Caracas.

“We require from you a commitment to abandoning political violence, hatred and intolerance forever,” senior official Delcy Rodriguez told them in video broadcast on state TV.

Friday’s releases included Angel Rivas, a former army general famous for taking to the roof of his home with an assault rifle in defiance of an arrest warrant, and Daniel Ceballos, former mayor of the restive city of San Cristobal.

“Death to tyranny, long live liberty!” Vivas said as he left jail late on Friday, before adding that the terms of his release prohibited him from speaking further to media.

Supporters surrounded his car, singing the national anthem.

The releases have not included militant opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, the best known of Maduro’s detained critics.

He was one of two popular rivals to Maduro who were barred from standing as candidates in the May 20 election.

Decried by opponents as a dictator who has wrecked a once-prosperous economy, Maduro says he is victim of an “economic war” and coup plots by a U.S.-backed opposition.

He bristles at the term political prisoners, saying all detainees are there on legitimate charges and convictions, including terrorism.

The released activists all had various conditions placed on their freedom, including a requirement to report to authorities every month, and a prohibition on going abroad or using social media.

“They should never have been in prison,” opposition leader Julio Borges said of Saturday’s releases via Twitter. “There is nothing to thank the dictatorship for.”

Reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Andrew Cawthorne; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Diane Craft and Daniel Wallis

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