Venezuela: Seventy-Nine Prisoners Freed as Maduro Seeks National Reconciliation

The move marks a policy shift by Maduro, who has previously called for zero impunity.

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A number of those released are transported to the centre of Caracas by authorities
A number of those released are transported to the centre of Caracas by authorities. (Cristian Hernandez / EFE)
By Paul Dobson
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Merida, June 4, 2018 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Seventy-nine prisoners who were being held for alleged crimes related to political violence, most of which occurred during the anti-government protests of 2014 and 2017, have been granted “procedural benefits” and released by Venezuelan authorities this past weekend.

According to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the so-called “Christian” and “socialist” measure is “a solid, firm attempt for the reconciliation and coming together of all of Venezuelans and to say no to violence.”

“Never again violence, never again road blockades, coup d’états, never again burning human beings,” he added, referring to the waves of violent opposition-led demonstrations that resulted in scores of fatalities in 2014 and 2017, respectively.

National reconciliation and turning the page on Venezuela’s tumultuous recent past was one of Maduro’s electoral pledges that helped him secure victory in May 20 presidential elections, the results of which the right-wing opposition has so far refused to recognize.

Amongst the high profile prisoners released is the ex-mayor of the western city of San Cristobal and prominent member of the ultra-right Popular Will party, Daniel Ceballos, ex-Defence Minister and retired general Raul Baduelrenegade military leader Angel Vivas, Popular Will Deputies Gilber Caro and Renzo Prieto, and First Justice Deputy Wilmer Azuaje. So far prominent right-wing leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was sentenced to thirteen years nine months imprisonment in 2015 for his role in the previous year’s violent anti-government protests, has not been named.

Last week, the US citizen accused of terrorism by Venezuelan authorities, Joshua Holt, was also released.

Whilst some of those freed were being held in police custody, others were already under house arrest which was granted to thirty such prisoners in 2017. Former military officials who have received the benefit are still awaiting a military court to decide the terms and conditions of their release.

The majority of those released were involved in the 2014 and 2017 opposition street protests which demanded the ousting of the elected Maduro government and regularly featured violent tactics, including deadly roadblocks, firebombing of public institutions, and assassinations of Chavistas or those perceived to be government supporters. The prisoners were facing trial or had already been convicted for crimes including owning illegal firearms, disturbing the peace, illegal use of military uniforms, conspiracy, rebellion, and/or treason. Maduro has claimed that those released are “not murderers” but were rather charged with more minor offenses.

The release follows a series of post-electoral meetings between newly re-elected Maduro and right-wing political leaders, in which the president has demanded the latter act as guarantors for those due to be released. Subsequently, Maduro formally requested that the Truth Commission of the National Constituent Assembly appeal to judicial authorities for the prisoners’ liberation.

Following the corresponding decisions in a series of penal courts, thirty-nine prisoners were granted the “procedural benefit” on Friday and a further forty more on Sunday. Venezuela’s attorney general, Tarek William Saab, has hinted that more releases are to be expected this week.

As part of the procedural benefit, those released are reportedly banned from leaving the country, using social media or making press declarations, and in some cases have been politically barred. They will also be expected to present themselves to parole officers every thirty days.

Justification and reaction

Upon announcing the controversial measure, President Maduro reminded the country of the historic precedent for what he called an “act of generosity, of benevolence,” arguing that it is the “humanistic” nature of socialists which differentiate them from capitalists.

He cited the 1994 pardoning of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, by center-right President Rafael Caldera for his role in the 1992 military uprising, as well as Chavez’s 2007 pardoning of thirty-six citizens involved in the short-lived 2002 coup d’état.

Nonetheless, the release of the prisoners marks a decided policy shift by President Maduro, who has on multiple occasions promised jail time for anyone who breaks Venezuelan law and in particular perpetrators of the political violence seen in 2014 and 2017.

“They must be severely punished. The full weight of the law must be applied to these fascist saboteurs,” he declared in 2014 in relation to those using violence for political ends.

Reaction to the measure has been mixed among both pro and anti-government sectors.

Right-wing political groups have claimed victory in their long-standing battle for what they describe as the “liberation” of “political prisoners,” celebrating what they interpret as a backtracking by a weakened Maduro.

Following the news, ex-presidential candidates Henri Falcon and Henrique Capriles both took to Twitter, with Falcon stating “The country is calling for peace… all [of the ‘political prisoners’] should be released,” while Capriles wrote, “Liberty should be a motive for joy for the entire country”.

Patricia Ceballos, wife of the now free Daniel Ceballos, told press, “This is a victory for all Venezuelans, for the international community, for the democrats and the defenders of human rights.”

However, right-wing NGO Foro Penal cast doubt on the measure, claiming that many of those released are not anti-government activists but rather common criminals or in fact government supporters. They also claim that this is not the time to celebrate as, according to their count, there are more than 300 opposition militants behind bars who have not been offered this procedural benefit.

Pro-government groups have also received the news with mixed reactions.

The Committee of Victims of the Guarimbas, as the 2014 and 2017 violent anti-government demonstrations are popularly called, voiced support for the measure, declaring, “We the victims won’t be the people who close the doors to the path of national reconciliation, peace, and the coming together of the Venezuelans.”

However, other grassroots leftist organizations have expressed anger at the move, claiming that it will only add to problems of criminal impunity and will spell further destabilization for the country.

For its part, Merida-based community TV station Tatuy TV, has argued that the “unjust” releases will “demobilise” the Venezuelan people.

Others, such as left-wing news portal LaIguana.TV, warned that after two episodes of violent anti-government protest waves, it is naïve to expect any change in behaviour from those released.

“Sooner rather than later, at least some of those who have been pardoned… will commit the same crime again… with very serious consequences,” predicts LaIguana’s Clodovaldo Hernandez. He also observed that “none of those who benefit from this measure have ever admitted their guilt,” and “some even left prison threatening the president with vengeance.”

Anger and concern were also expressed on social media, with one citizen stating, “Now everyone is working on freeing the imprisoned politicians and terrorists. Maduro, don’t throw more gasoline onto the streets, they [the right-wing] have the torch ready to ignite it again.”

Others also made known their clamour for firmer measures against the country’s spiraling inflation rather than the freeing of those perceived to be criminals.

“Maduro, instead of releasing WAGED TERRORISTS, you should be putting the PRICE SPECULATORS, RESELLERS, AND SMUGGLERS behind bars!!!” one user tweeted.