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Venezuela grants conditional freedom to 39 political prisoners

Venezuelan President, Nicolas Maduro, delivers a speech during a ceremony in which he received the credential as President-elect for the 2019-2025 period in Caracas, Venezuela, 22 May 2018. Maudro declares US Charge d'Affaires, Todd Robinson, persona non grata, and gave him 48 hours to leave the country. (Miguel Gutierrez/EFE/ ZUMA Press/TNS)

Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro granted conditional freedom to at least 39 political prisoners Friday, including former opposition Mayor Daniel Ceballos, imprisoned since 2014 for allegedly encouraging violent protests in his home state.

The political prisoners slated for release include some arrested during anti-government rallies over the last three years amid pitched confrontations with state security forces and Maduro’s militant supporters. Others are tied to an attack against lawmaker Teodoro Campos on April 2 while he toured downtown Caracas with former presidential candidate Henri Falcon, according to a list of names shared by Supreme Court’s President Maikel Moreno.

“In the next hours we will continue working on measures of this kind relating to other people,” Constituent Assembly President Delcy Rodriguez said in a televised address before an audience in Caracas that featured political prisoners set to be freed. “This is the first step toward what Venezuela should be, as we move away from hate and intolerance.”

The announcement follows Nicolas Maduro’s internationally condemned re-election on May 20, and as the government tries to stave off sanctions that have cut into the nation’s financial lifeline and targeted the regime’s top leaders.

In the past two weeks, Maduro has met with a Vatican envoy, a U.S. senator and key members of the country’s opposition, who’ve long made the release of political prisoners as a central demand in previous but ultimately failed talks with the government.

After a symbolic swearing-in ceremony last month, Maduro appeared to signal a willingness to concede some ground. “I want them to go free,” he said. Echoing that shift, Venezuela’s Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said late Thursday — after Maduro had met with four opposition governors — that the government wants to “turn the page on political violence.”

That may be easier said than done for the families of more than 368 political prisoners currently detained in Venezuela, according to the human rights organization Foro Penal, or Penal Forum. The forum has documented political prisoners’ accounts of mistreatment, torture and lack of medical care. Oftentimes, courts may grant political prisoners parole only to see the writs ignored by prison authorities.

Some of the detainees have been held in a Caracas underground prison overseen by intelligence police known at the “tomb,” consisting of small, windowless, isolation cells where prisoners are subjected to cold temperatures and constant blinding white light.

While rare, Friday’s action is not without precedent. The government’s Comision de la Verdad, or “the Truth Commission,” has released political prisoners, sometime in waves and always with great fanfare, only to follow up with more arrests.

In 2017, the number political prisoners in Venezuela skyrocketed to 676, according to a criminal report filed by Organization of American States earlier this week. That figure, according to the OAS, is the highest since the military dictatorship of the 1950s.

Those arbitrarily detained include political activists, students, journalists, police, military, human rights activists and “all kinds of citizens who simply manifested by their fundamental right to protest and to claim their rights enshrined in the Constitution that have been denied by the government of President Maduro,” the report reads.

Ceballos, the ex-mayor of Tachira state capital San Cristobal near the Colombian border, was stripped of his post in 2014 after the court said he encouraged violent protests and failed to remove barricades set up in the city. In April of this year, the hearing scheduled at the beginning of his trial was canceled for the 12th time.

Then a member of the Voluntad Popular opposition party led by Leopoldo Lopez, his arrest came as Maduro stiffened his response to anti-government protests that resulted in at least 35 deaths, including a National Guard officer.

After his arrest, his wife, Patricia Ceballos, became mayor of San Cristobal and has since led efforts for his release. Among the conditions set upon Ceballos, he must present himself in court every 30 days and is prohibited from leaving the country or making any statements to the media or on social media platforms.

Less than a week ago, the government released Joshua Holt, a U.S. citizen who had been imprisoned for two years in a Caracas jail without a trial. Venezuela had accused him of espionage and stockpiling weapons.

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© 2018 Bloomberg News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.