Venezuelan Opposition Leader Lopez Is Sent Home From Prison

  • Alleged killer placed in home confinement for health reasons
  • ‘Not enough’ says Spain’s Rajoy, as Maduro allies seek calm

Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, Venezuela’s most renowned political prisoner, was transferred from military prison to house arrest after three years behind bars, an abrupt about-face by a government rocked by months of violent protests.

Lopez waves a Venezuelan flag as he arrives home July 8.

Photographer: Carlos Becera/Bloomberg

Lopez, who’s been serving an almost 14-year sentence for allegedly inciting violence in a wave of protests against President Nicolas Maduro, left the Ramo Verde facility outside Caracas, Venezuela’s Supreme Court said in a statement early Saturday morning. Lopez, 46, was granted the transfer on humanitarian grounds, based on health considerations and “indications of serious irregularities” in the proceedings related to the case, the court said.

The surprise announcement sent shock waves across the polarized nation. It came in the aftermath of almost daily anti-government protests that have left 90 dead since April. Images of Lopez embracing his children rapidly spread across social media, while supporters and camera crews massed outside his home in an upscale Caracas district, where he once served as mayor.

‘My Struggle’

"This conquest is thanks to international pressure,” said lawmaker Freddy Guevara, a top deputy of Lopez’s Popular Will political party. Guevara read a message from Lopez, who pumped his fist and waved a Venezuelan flag to cheering crowds.

“I am not willing to give up in my struggle for the freedom of Venezuela," Guevara quoted Lopez as saying. "And if that implies that I should return to a cell in Ramo Verde, I am willing to do so.”

Lopez has become a symbol for rights groups and foreign governments, who’ve said his detention -- including stints in solitary confinement -- was clear evidence the Maduro government was willing to trample basic rights to guarantee its stay in power. His release, as well as that of dozens of other jailed activists and politicians, has been a key demand among Maduro’s opponents as they have rallied their supporters to the streets.

The release of Lopez was a "significant step in the right direction" by Venezuela, the U.S. State Department said in statement, calling for "the full restoration" of his rights. In February, U.S. President Donald Trump called for the “immediate” release of Lopez after a meeting with his wife, Lilian Tintori.

Good Step

Speaking in Hamburg, where the G-20 summit of leaders was taking place, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told reporters he welcomed Lopez’s release from prison but warned it isn’t enough. He said former Spanish leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who has frequented Venezuela over the past few months, played an important role in negotiations.

"Leopoldo is not a free man, he is locked up at home -- it’s a good step, but it’s not enough," Rajoy said. "There has been a lot of pressure from the international community, and Zapatero has been very active. This is the line of work we should continue on."

The details of Lopez’s transfer remain a mystery. While Lopez’s party has played down any form of negotiation -- calling it a “unilateral” move by the government -- Venezuela’s top human rights officer, Tareck William Saab, said on Saturday that Tintori had requested the transfer in recent weeks, amid torture allegations and rumors of Lopez’s failing health.

The move, Saab said, was “an indication that Venezuela’s democratic institutions were working properly,” adding more releases were on the way. While human rights groups have lambasted the lack of separation of powers in Venezuela, they were quick to welcome Lopez’s release.

‘National Reconciliation’

This opens up a window for “national reconciliation” and brings Venezuela closer to a democratic exit from its “serious crisis,” Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, wrote on Twitter.

Despite pressure at home and abroad to convene fresh elections amid spiraling inflation, rampant crime and corruption allegations, Maduro has called for a constituent assembly at the end of this month. The assembly aims to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution, stoking fears that it may do away with the electoral calendar entirely.

Observers are quick to point out that Lopez’s release comes just as the opposition has changed its strategy. It’s promising to ramp up street demonstrations, while calling for civil disobedience and convening an unofficial plebiscite on the constitutional assembly.

“The government is trying to cool down the pressure on the streets,” Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst said. “It had to cede in something and this was the easiest demand to meet -- it doesn’t change the balance of power.”

Lopez Denial

One of the Venezuelan government’s most strident critics, Lopez has denied encouraging violence in the 2014 wave of unrest, which became known as “The Exit.” The demonstrations dragged on for months after his incarceration and triggered a crackdown on dissent.

For years, the government has claimed it would refuse to negotiate with a man it labeled a coup-monger, alleged killer and the “monster of Ramo Verde,” while Lopez himself has placed other opposition demands above his own freedom.

Allies of the embattled president have called for calm in wake of the Supreme Court’s abrupt decision. On Twitter, Information Minster Ernesto Villegas clarified that the transfer by no means absolved Lopez of his crimes, but said government supporters must comply “whether they like it or not.”

Others see a larger deal in the making.

“It’s not that they gifted Lopez’s freedom, the opposition had to offer something,” said Pantoulas.

— With assistance by Nathan Crooks, Fabiola Zerpa, Noris Soto, and Kenneth Pringle

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