Venezuela releasing jailed opposition leader to house arrest

AP News
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Posted: Aug 11, 2015 10:47 PM
Venezuela releasing jailed opposition leader to house arrest

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — One of the Venezuelan opposition's most prominent leaders will be released to house arrest while he awaits trial, the government said Tuesday, stirring hope for the dozens of administration critics who remain behind bars.

The public prosecutor's office announced that Daniel Ceballos, a former mayor of the restive western city of San Cristobal, would be released for health reasons. He suffered from kidney and stomach problems during a 20-day hunger strike in June, according to his supporters.

Attorney Juan Carlos Gutierrez said Ceballos, who is charged with "civil rebellion," will be able to seek better medical care while living at the apartment of a relative in Caracas, but it is less than the full freedom he deserves.

The release could signal that the country's socialist administration is taking a new approach to the more than 50 anti-government activists human rights groups say remain jailed on invented charges.

"Ceballos was jailed on some heavy charges. I think this is going to give the other prisoners a lot of reason to hope that the same thing will happen to them," said Dimitris Pantoulas, a political and business consultant based in Caracas.

The 31-year-old former mayor went on a 20-day hunger strike with another jailed opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, to demand that the government set a date for congressional elections and release the people they consider political prisoners. The election date has now been set, and several prisoners have been freed.

In May, Ceballos won a primary from behind bars to run for a congressional seat, but elections officials later barred him from holding public office.

Ceballos was arrested in March 2014 on charges related to his support of anti-government demonstrations in San Cristobal that helped ignite a bloody nationwide protest movement. He was expected to be reunited with his wife and children Tuesday night, and to be bound by terms standard for this kind of release prohibiting him from speaking to the press, posting on social media, or engaging in political activity.

U.S. officials have made the release of Lopez and Ceballos a key demand in ongoing high-level talks aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations.

Releasing Ceballos to house arrest allows the administration of President Nicolas Maduro to make a goodwill gesture to the international community, and may have the added benefit of taking away some of the opposition leader's power as a symbol of injustice.

Pantoulas pointed to the case of Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, who was released to house arrest for health reasons in April, and has become something of an afterthought in opposition calls to free political prisoners.

"When it's house arrest, people don't consider them jailed anymore," Pantoulas said.

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AP writer Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report.

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