Opposition leader Lopez freed as Venezuela marks 100 days of protest
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Venezuela marked 100 days of anti-government protests on Sunday, a day after prominent opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez was released from jail. Lopez had been in prison since February 2014.
Lopez was placed under house arrest immediately after his unexpected release on Saturday from a military prison. The move is the most visible sign of reconciliation since protests erupted on April 1 and has sparked new hope that negotiations might be possble between the opposition and the embattled leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro.
In the last three months at least 91 people have died in clashes between protesters and security forces. The unrest erupted over moves by the Supreme Court and the government to strip the opposition-controlled National Assembly of power, delay elections and rewrite the constitution.
The protests continued on Sunday as 2,000 people marched in eastern Caracas, many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Lopez's face and carrying banners reading: "One hundred days and I continue to rebel against tyranny." Meanwhile, thousands of government supporters marched in the city centre wearing the revolutionary red of the "Chavistas" loyal to former leader Hugo Chavez.
Lopez, leader of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party and a leading symbol of anti-Maduro resistance, emerged after his release from prison looking fit and happy but wearing an ankle bracelet to allow authorities to monitor his movements, his family said. He pumped his fist in the air, unfurled the Venezuelan flag and told supporters, "Yes, we can!"
"I maintain my firm opposition to this regime," Lopez said in a statement read by a leader of his party. "I reiterate my commitment to fighting until Venezuela's freedom is won."
President Maduro, in televised remarks on Saturday, said he "respected" and "supported" the Supreme Court's decision but called for a message of "peace and rectification" from Lopez "because the nation wants peace".
Lopez's wife, Lilian Tintori, insisted that no deal was negotiated for her husband's release. "You don't cut a deal on freedom, on human rights, on dignity. Never," Tintori said. "There was no negotiation for Leopldo to be at his home ... It was a unilateral decision by the Nicolas Maduro government. The government had to do something fast because they could no longer guarantee [Lopez's] safety inside [Ramo Verde] prison."
She said Lopez was the victim of cruel and inhuman treatment, that he had shed six kilos and had recently had serious stomach troubles. Lopez's father told Spanish radio that "they had punished him with solitary confinement without light or water for three days", according to the BBC.
Symbol of resistance
Analysts said it seemed significant that the government had agreed to release a man it once termed "a monster". Lopez accepted house arrest after once declaring he would leave prison only with full freedom and after all opposition members had been freed. Foro Penal, an NGO, estimates the number of political prisoners to be 433; the government says they are in jail for acts of violence.
Analyst Luis Vicente Leon said the government is hoping to lower tensions as it faces serious destabilisation whereas the moderate opposition wanted to avoid "suicide in a lose-lose situation". While negotiations may be possible, he added, they would require concessions bound to be unpopular with extremists on either side.
The Supreme Court said it had ordered Lopez's move to house arrest for health reasons, calling it a "humanitarian measure".
His release had been a key demand of Venezuela's opposition and the international community amid an intensifying political confrontation aimed at forcing the unpopular Maduro to hold early elections.
In Madrid, Javier Cremades, Lopez's Spanish lawyer, stressed that "all of Leopoldo Lopez's civil and political rights must still be restored" and that all political prisoners must be freed. The US State Department called Lopez's release "a significant step in the right direction", but said many more such steps are needed.
Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States regional bloc, said the court's decision offered an opportunity for national reconciliation, while Henrique Capriles Radonski, a former opposition presidential candidate, insisted Lopez "must be given his full liberty together with all political prisoners”.
Harvard-educated Lopez, 46, was imprisoned for more than three and a half years for allegedly inciting violence by calling for anti-government protests. The former mayor of a Caracas municipality, he was an early champion of street protests to force political change as oil-rich Venezuela spiralled into a severe economic and political crisis after the death of Chavez, Maduro's predecessor.
The government blamed Lopez for a months-long outbreak of anti-government protests in 2014 that left 43 people dead. Lopez was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison for inciting violence during anti-government protests in 2014, a charge he has always denied. His defence said that the charges were invented and politically motivated.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)