Venezuela protest leader exits jail
Under house arrest, he vows to continue to oppose Maduro
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.