Venezuela protest leader ex­its jail

Un­der house ar­rest, he vows to con­tinue to op­pose Maduro

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - FABI­OLA SANCHEZ In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Joshua Good­man and Joseph Wilson of The Associated Press.

CARACAS, Venezuela — Op­po­si­tion leader Leopoldo Lopez was re­leased from prison and placed un­der house ar­rest Satur­day af­ter more than three years in mil­i­tary lockup, an un­ex­pected re­ver­sal that fu­eled hopes for a broader amnesty for dozens of jailed ac­tivists as the coun­try slides ever deeper into po­lit­i­cal tur­moil.

Venezuela’s gov­ern­ment-stacked Supreme Court said in a state­ment that it had granted Lopez the “hu­man­i­tar­ian mea­sures” be­cause of health rea­sons and “se­ri­ous signs of ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties” in the han­dling of the case that it did not spec­ify.

Lopez briefly greeted a few dozen sup­port­ers gath­ered out­side his home in Caracas in the af­ter­noon. Climb­ing atop a wall dressed in a white shirt, he clutched and kissed a Venezue­lan flag and raised his right fist in a show of de­fi­ance.

Lopez vowed that he’s pre­pared to re­turn to jail rather than give up his fight to re­move Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro.

“This is a step in the march to­ward free­dom,” Lopez said in a state­ment read by close ally and law­maker Freddy Gue­vara. “I carry no re­sent­ment, nor will I give up my be­liefs. My po­si­tion against this regime is firm as are my con­vic­tions to fight for a real peace, co­ex­is­tence, change and free­dom.”

As his back­ers cel­e­brated, rel­a­tives of dozens of other jailed ac­tivists gath­ered at a Caracas jail in hopes that their loved ones might be re­leased too in the com­ing hours.

Spec­u­la­tion that Lopez’s trans­fer may have been part of a larger deal was sparked in part by a gov­ern­ment truth com­mis­sion state­ment say­ing that as part of its work to defuse ten­sions, it had asked the ju­di­cial sys­tem to eval­u­ate ap­ply­ing “al­ter­na­tive for­mu­las” for those im­pris­oned for vi­o­lent acts.

The op­po­si­tion has been de­mand­ing the re­lease of dozens of ac­tivists it con­sid­ers po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in or­der to ini­ti­ate talks aimed at re­solv­ing a po­lit­i­cal cri­sis that has left more than 90 peo­ple dead and hun­dreds in­jured. But Lopez, the most prom­i­nent and de­fi­ant of those be­hind bars, was seen as the last per­son likely to leave jail in the event of any gov­ern­ment con­ces­sions.

The 46-year-old for­mer Caracas-area mayor was sen­tenced in 2015 to nearly 14 years in prison for in­cit­ing vi­o­lence dur­ing anti-gov­ern­ment protests in which three peo­ple died and dozens were wounded.

“We spoke for like 40 min­utes. He’s hug­ging his chil­dren, he’s with his wife. …. I’m sure they are cel­e­brat­ing,” Lopez’s fa­ther, who shares his son’s name, said from ex­ile in Spain. He said that in re­cent days Lopez had been iso­lated in his prison cell with­out food and at­trib­uted his son’s trans­fer to the con­sid­er­able in­ter­na­tional pres­sure on Maduro’s gov­ern­ment.

“He told me him­self re­cently: Dad, it’s al­ways dark­est right be­fore the break of dawn,” he added.

Venezuela has been rocked by months of near-daily protests again this year, fu­eled by wide­spread dis­con­tent over short­ages of ba­sic goods, gal­lop­ing in­fla­tion and al­le­ga­tions that Maduro is un­der­min­ing democ­racy in the coun­try.

Span­ish Prime Min­is­ter Mar­i­ano Ra­joy said he had been in­formed of the news of Lopez’s trans­fer by his pre­de­ces­sor, Jose Luiz Ro­driguez Za­p­a­tero, who he said played a role in the break­through. Za­p­a­tero has been trav­el­ing back and forth to Venezuela for months try­ing to bro­ker a deal on jailed op­po­si­tion lead­ers and jump­start a di­a­logue be­tween the gov­ern­ment and op­po­si­tion.

Za­p­a­tero’s ef­forts were also ac­knowl­edged in the state­ment by the truth com­mis­sion.

Colom­bian for­mer Pres­i­dent Ernesto Sam­per, who had been work­ing with Za­p­a­tero, called it a “pos­i­tive ges­ture” by the gov­ern­ment and pre­dicted that it would open a space for di­a­logue across Venezuela’s bit­ter po­lit­i­cal di­vide.

The Supreme Court state­ment point­ing to pos­si­ble “ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties” in the Lopez case sur­prised gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers and foes alike be­cause the high court has not pre­vi­ously shown any signs of mis­giv­ings about its rul­ings.

For­eign gov­ern­ments and hu­man-rights groups have long crit­i­cized Lopez’s de­ten­tion as po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated, and one of the prose­cu­tors on the case who later sought asy­lum in the United States even said that he was or­dered by the gov­ern­ment to ar­rest Lopez de­spite a lack of ev­i­dence. The judge in the case was later sanc­tioned by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

But Maduro and his sup­port­ers said the de­ci­sion in no way ex­on­er­ated Lopez or the op­po­si­tion for at­tempts to desta­bi­lize the gov­ern­ment.

“You know the deep and pro­found dif­fer­ences I have with Mr. L.L.,” Maduro said at a tele­vised event, re­fer­ring to Lopez by his ini­tials. “Af­ter al­most four years in Ramo Verde [prison] hope­fully this mea­sure will be un­der­stood and he’ll send a mes­sage in sup­port of peace, be­cause that’s what the coun­try wants.”

The White House on Satur­day wel­comed Lopez’s re­lease from prison but said more needs to be done to clear his name and that of other pris­on­ers held un­fairly by the Maduro “regime.”

In early May there were re­ports, in­clud­ing from U.S. Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., that Lopez had been rushed to a hos­pi­tal in se­ri­ous con­di­tion. The gov­ern­ment later de­nied that and re­leased video of Lopez say­ing he was well.

But more re­cently sup­port­ers have stepped up com­plaints that Lopez was be­ing tor­tured and pun­ished for sup­port­ing the street protests against Maduro — claims the gov­ern­ment has de­nied.


Venezue­lan op­po­si­tion leader Leopoldo Lopez holds a na­tional flag and ac­knowl­edges sup­port­ers Satur­day out­side his Caracas home.

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