Thursday 22 February 2018

Opposition leader freed from Venezuela jail and placed under house arrest

Leopoldo Lopez is back home after his latest spell in prison (AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File)
Leopoldo Lopez is back home after his latest spell in prison (AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File)

Venezuelan opposition activist Leopoldo Lopez has been returned home after being taken back to jail nearly a week ago.

The activist's wife Lilian Tintori said on Twitter that she and her husband remain committed to achieving "peace and freedom for Venezuela".

Lilian Tintori, wife of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez
Lilian Tintori, wife of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez

Mr Lopez was released from prison on July 8 and placed under house arrest after serving three years of a 13-year sentence on charges of inciting violence at opposition rallies. Many human rights groups considered him a political prisoner.

But he was taken back into custody in the middle of the night Tuesday along with former Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma in what many believed was a renewed crackdown on the opposition following the election of delegates to the constitutional assembly.

Some saw his return home as a sign Venezuelan officials may be rethinking the crackdown, even as the new, all-powerful constitutional assembly ousted the defiant chief prosecutor.

Cries of "traitor" and "justice" erupted from the room where 545 pro-government delegates voted on Saturday unanimously to remove Luisa Ortega from her post as the nation's top law enforcement official and replace her with a staunch government supporter.

They said they were acting in response to a ruling by the government-stacked Supreme Court, which banned Ms Ortega from leaving the country and froze her bank accounts while it considers criminal charges against her for alleged irregularities.

Ms Ortega, a longtime loyalist who broke with the socialist government in April, refused to recognise the decision and vowed to continue defending the rights of Venezuelans from President Nicolas Maduro's "coup" against the constitution "with my last breath".

"This is just a tiny example of what's coming for everyone that dares to oppose this totalitarian form of government," Ms Ortega said in a statement she signed as chief prosecutor.

"If they're doing this to the chief prosecutor, imagine the helpless state all Venezuelans live in."

Earlier on Saturday, Ms Ortega was pushed and barred from entering her office by dozens of national guardsmen in riot gear who took control of the entrance to the building.

She alleged that authorities were desperate to get their hands on dossiers containing information on dirty dealings by high-level officials, including sensitive details about millions of dollars in bribes paid by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

Assembly delegates later swore in as her replacement Ombudsman Tarek William Saab, who was recently sanctioned by the Trump administration for failing to protect protesters from abuses in his role as the nation's top human rights official.

The constitutional assembly was seated despite strong criticism from the US, other countries and the Venezuelan opposition, which fear that it will be a tool for imposing dictatorship. Supporters say it will pacify a country rocked by violent protests.

Its installation is virtually certain to intensify a political crisis that has brought four months of protests in which at least 120 people have died and hundreds more have been jailed.

Maduro also wants the assembly to strip opposition MPs of their constitutional immunity from prosecution, saying their constant conspiring to oust him should not be protected.

Press Association

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