Colombia deports 2 Venezuelan student activists

AP News
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Posted: Sep 05, 2014 7:59 PM

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia has deported two Venezuelan student activists, drawing criticism on both sides of the border by groups who fear they'll be unjustly prosecuted for their political views.

Lorent Saleh, whose arrest had been sought by President Nicolas Maduro's government, was handed over to Venezuelan authorities Thursday night after he was detained for overstaying and violating the terms of his visa. Fellow Venezuelan Gabriel Valles was expelled on Friday though his visa remained valid. Both are members of the activist group Operation Liberty, which is critical of the Venezuelan government.

Saleh can be seen loudly protesting Colombia's decision in a video of the handover shot with a cellular phone by a fellow activist.

"(Colombian) President Juan Manuel Santos is negotiating and handing over the students," Saleh shouts as he is ushered from a white van parked on the Simon Bolivar international bridge to members of Venezuela's national security agency. "Migration authorities are responsible for violating my human rights and right to life."

Colombian authorities said that Saleh faced multiple charges and an arrest order in Venezuela. They said he entered the country on Feb. 19, during the height of protests in Venezuela against Maduro's socialist government, and from Colombian territory engaged in unspecified political activities not allowed by foreigners.

When his 90-day visa expired, he was fined and given 10 days to normalize his migratory status. In the end, he didn't apply for another visa nor did he request political asylum, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

"We don't know where he is or how he's doing," Dayi Sedano, who was with Saleh when he was detained on Thursday in Bogota, told The Associated Press. "The last contact anyone has had with him was on the bridge."

His family does not know his whereabouts either, according to the Venezuelan nonprofit Penal Forum.

Valles entered Colombia in early June with a 90-day tourist visa, which he renewed earlier this month, according to authorities. Immigration police arrested him Friday in the Colombian city of Cucuta, near the border with Venezuela. The Colombian Foreign Ministry said he had been carrying out "activities expressly prohibited under the immigration laws," but did not offer additional details.

Saleh led students in a well-publicized hunger strike in 2011 in front of the Caracas offices of the Organization of American States in a bid to attract foreign attention to the Venezuelan government's human rights record.

He fled Venezuela in 2013, fearing for his safety after evading arrest on what he considered trumped-up charges for years, according to Sedano.

Saleh entered Colombia from Costa Rica, where he had been living, with the intention of making his way back home but decided to stay put when protests demanding Maduro's resignation broke out across the country.

From Colombian territory, he spoke at events to rally support for the student activists and draw attention to Maduro's crackdown, which human rights groups and the United States harshly condemned but which Colombia and other regional governments have been reluctant to criticize.

More than 40 deaths have been blamed on the unrest.

Sedano dismissed Colombia's allegations that Saleh was engaging in political proselytism, saying that he wasn't a member of any political party in Venezuela.

The Venezuelan human rights group A Window To Freedom is calling the arrest "strange," and demanding that Venezuelan intelligence service guarantee the rights and safety of the young men.

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Follow Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APjoshgoodman

Ricardo Nunes and Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.