CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A former Caracas police chief whose decade-long imprisonment had rallied Venezuela's opposition has been released from jail on humanitarian grounds to continue serving a 30-year sentence at home.
Ivan Simonovis had been jailed since 2004 in connection with the death of pro-government protesters who had rushed to the defense of then-President Hugo Chavez during a failed coup attempt two years earlier. In 2009, he was convicted of aggravated murder.
The 54-year-old former police chief appeared briefly before journalists who had rushed to his home in the leafy La Florida neighborhood early Saturday as word of his release spread on social media. Appearing on a second-floor balcony, he waved to the crowd and kissed his wife and daughter but made no comments as two camouflaged police officers stationed outside looked on.
The judge who authorized Simonovis' release barred him from making statements to the press, engaging in politics or using social media, according to his wife, Bony Pertinez de Simonovis, who used her Twitter account to express relief over his release.
"When you believe deeply in something, there's no other way except for it to come true," Pertinez de Simonovis wrote. "God is great and merciful."
Simonovis and his supporters had urged Venezuela to release him, citing concerns about his health. In May, his lawyers said he suffered from 19 illnesses, including several problems in his back and spinal cord, and his condition was deteriorating. The former police chief staged a brief hunger strike that month to protest Venezuelan courts' refusal to grant him release.
The Supreme Court said in a Twitter message Saturday that Simonovis would have to return to jail once his health improves.
Simonovis' release comes as President Nicolas Maduro prepares to travel to the United Nations next week to win support for Venezuela's bid for a two-year seat on the Security Council. Latin American nations unanimously support the candidacy, but human rights groups and members of Venezuela's opposition argue Maduro's crack down on protests and jailing of his political foes violate the council's goal of defending human rights.
Freedom for Simonovis became a major focus of short-lived attempt at dialogue between the socialist government and leaders of the opposition following a wave of anti-government protests this year blamed for at least 42 deaths.
As part of those talks, Maduro agreed to form a medical commission to study the case. But the commission's work never advanced and Maduro repeatedly rejected an amnesty for Simonovis and others the opposition considers political prisoners, instead accusing the former police commissioner of crimes against humanity.
Members of the opposition celebrated Simonovis' release and vowed to redouble their efforts to free government opponents including Leopoldo Lopez, a hardliner arrested in February for allegedly inciting violence at an anti-government rally, as well as two mayors from his Popular Will party.
AP Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.