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Venezuela frees first of 80 political prisoners in show of good will

The president of Venezuela's Constituent Assembly, Delcy Rodriguez (C), offers a press conference after holding a meeting with the Truth Commission, at the Foreign Ministry in Caracas on December 23, 2017. The Truth Commission recommended the release of more than 80 opponents, arrested during several protests against President Nicolas Maduro in 2014 and during this year.
The president of Venezuela's Constituent Assembly, Delcy Rodriguez (C), offers a press conference after holding a meeting with the Truth Commission, at the Foreign Ministry in Caracas on December 23, 2017. The Truth Commission recommended the release of more than 80 opponents, arrested during several protests against President Nicolas Maduro in 2014 and during this year. Federico Parra, AFP

Venezuelan authorities late Saturday began releasing some of those detained during demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government, a rare goodwill gesture to the opposition at the end of a politically torrid year.

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Delcy Rodriguez, the president of the assembly and head of its Truth Commission investigating the protests, said that Christmas was "a moment of reconciliation" as she announced the decision to release around 80 people.

Among the first freed was Alfredo Ramos, mayor of the northwestern municipality of Iribarren, who was arrested late July and handed a 15 month sentence, and a dozen police officers from Chacao municipality, an opposition stronghold of Caracas. Alfredo Romero, director of human rights NGO Foro Penal, tweeted Sunday morning that 36 prisoners have been released so far.

State television showed an image of Rodriguez meeting with the group.

"You go back to jail for the medical check and then you go home to spend Christmas with your families," she said.

"I feel happy for my freedom," Ramos told journalists upon his release. "It was a hard test, quite difficult."

But he also lashed out at his sentence.

"It was an arbitrary, unjust detention -- I committed no crime," he added.

Venezuela, whose oil reserves once made it the region's richest country, has been paralyzed in recent years by economic collapse and political conflict.

Opposition forces accuse Maduro of dismantling democratic institutions and setting up the Constituent Assembly to rubber-stamp his policies, with widespread protests breaking out this year.

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Supplies of food and medicine have become scarce, taking an ever-greater toll on people's health, and hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have chosen to emigrate.

The fate of those imprisoned has been a subject of negotiations between the government and the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) in the Dominican Republic, as both sides seek a solution to the country's grave political and economic crisis.

A third round of talks is set for January 11 and 12.

Earlier this week, Venezuelan opposition leaders asked Maduro to free "political prisoners" -- whose numbers one non-governmental group has put at 268 -- before Christmas as a gesture of good will.

On Thursday, the regional trade bloc Mercosur also called for their release.

The government has insisted that all are being held for acts of violence, conspiracy or treason, not as "political prisoners".

Rodriguez said those affected were being held in both civilian and military prisons, and she suggested community service as an alternative to imprisonment.

Some were detained in 2014 protests, and others this year.

(AFP)

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