Venezuela opposition seeks return home for exiles

AP News
Posted: Nov 23, 2012 6:50 PM

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan opposition lawmakers have drawn up a list of prisoners they consider to be wrongly jailed and want freed, and are also demanding that dozens of government opponents living in exile should be allowed to return home.

Opposition congressman Edgar Zambrano said Friday that a list being prepared by a group of lawmakers now includes 87 Venezuelans living in exile as well as 22 prisoners.

He said the list, when finished, is to be turned over to Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro during a Dec. 2 meeting. Those talks have been scheduled to follow up on a Nov. 12 meeting between Zambrano and Maduro, where they for the first time discussed the opposition's proposal for an amnesty.

Zambrano said lawmakers traveled recently to Costa Rica, Panama and Peru to meet with politicians who have fled into exile during President Hugo Chavez's tenure. Some left after facing criminal investigations or charges that they contend were trumped up for political purposes. They include Manuel Rosales, a former presidential candidate who fled to Peru and received asylum after being accused of corruption.

After Chavez won re-election in October, he said he was open to dialogue with his adversaries. Opponents say an important step in that direction would be freeing jailed opponents and letting those in exile return.

Opposition lawmakers have formed a committee to look into such cases, and some of them plan to travel in the coming days to Miami, Spain and Colombia to interview exiles, Zambrano told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

One of those who will be interviewed is Pedro Carmona, the businessman who briefly assumed power as president during a failed 2002 coup and then left for Colombia, where he was granted asylum.

In the past decade, dozens of politicians, military offices, businesspeople and former public officials have fled Venezuela, saying they were being persecuted for political reasons by Chavez's government. Chavez denies such accusations, saying many of those fled to evade legitimate charges.

Chavez similarly says there are no political prisoners in Venezuela. Government opponents insist some are wrongly jailed and have been demanding their freedom.

One case that has triggered strong criticism by human rights groups is that of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, who is under house arrest. She infuriated Chavez in 2009 when she freed a banker from prison while he was awaiting trial on charges of flouting the country's currency exchange controls. A day after her arrest, Chavez said on television that she should face a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. The judge maintains she is innocent.

This week, a new element in her case emerged with the release of a book by Venezuelan journalist Francisco Olivares, in which Afiuni is quoted as saying she was raped while held at a women's prison in 2009 — an attack she had previously not revealed.

Thelma Fernandez, one of Afiuni's lawyers, on Friday demanded an investigation to determine those responsible. Fernandez said that the government had previously been informed Afiuni was abused in prison and that the incident was also reported to U.N. officials.

Isabel Gonzalez, a regional prisons administrator and former director of the women's prison where Afiuni was held, told reporters that the judge made false accusations in the book. She said Afiuni was held alone in a maximum-security area with women guards where men aren't permitted to enter. Gonzalez said she planned to file a libel complaint.

Fernandez said Afiuni's lawyers previously accused the prison director of allowing the judge to be mistreated.

Pro-Chavez lawmaker Calixto Ortega said there is willingness within the president's movement to consider amnesty proposals, but Ortega said he also hoped it "doesn't become a big process of political impunity."