By Mariana Zuñiga and Nick Miroff,
CARACAS, Venezuela — In a surprise move, Venezuelan authorities released opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez from a military prison early Saturday and placed him under house arrest, citing concerns for his health and “irregularities” in his conviction.
Lopez, the country’s most important political prisoner, was handed a 13-year jail term in 2015 and has been locked up ever since. He became a symbol of resistance for opponents of the government, his portrait printed in bright colors on the T-shirts and flags of protesters who chant “Free Leopoldo!”
Lopez, 46, was escorted out the prison at around 3 a.m. and sent home, according to family members and fellow opposition leaders.While the current state of his health was unclear, members of his family confirmed he remained at home, not in a hospital.
Few here were willing to believe that a concern for his health or the integrity of his trial were the reason for the decision to let him out. With Venezuela’s economy in free fall and the country sliding toward political anarchy, President Nicolas Maduro has come under growing international pressure to return to democratic norms.
Former Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, a leftist who heads an international effort to mediate Venezuela’s crisis, made at least three visits to Lopez in recent weeks. Spain’s current leader, Mariano Rajoy, was among the first to celebrate Lopez’s transfer Saturday, but did not say if the country played a role. Among the world leaders who have called for Lopez’s release is President Trump, who met with the Venezuelan’s wife, Lilian Tintori, at the White House in February.
Releasing Lopez nonetheless represents a significant political risk for Maduro, as the charismatic former Caracas mayor ranks in polls as the country’s most popular politician. But Lopez’s supporters were quick to point out that Lopez’s conviction has not been lifted, and the only thing that has changed are the conditions of his confinement. His ability to assume leadership of the protest movement against Maduro may be limited by the terms of his house arrest.
His father, Leopoldo Lopez Gil, told reporters that authorities placed an electronic monitoring bracelet on his son, “but outside of that we don’t know of any other limitation.”
Opposition leaders called on the government to completely lift his conviction, on charges that essentially amounted to incitement to violence for his role in leading anti-government protests. Human-rights activists criticized the trial as flawed.
“What happens now depends very much on what Leopoldo is allowed to do and whether he will have the freedom to exercise leadership of the opposition,” said Caracas political analyst Carlos Romero.
In a statement to reporters, Lopez’s staff described his release as a “unilateral” decision by the government, not the result of a quid-pro-quo negotiation.
Venezuela has been on a razor’s edge in recent weeks, as the Maduro government pushes forward with a widely condemned plan to hold a “constituent assembly” that will have the power to rewrite the country’s constitution. The government has set July 30 as the date for voters to begin electing delegates to the assembly, which opponents of the government say they will boycott.
On Wednesday, armed pro-government supporters forced their way inside Venezuela’s parliament and beat up several opposition lawmakers, a shocking attack that deepened fears of an increasingly bloody confrontation. Nearly 100 Venezuelans have died in the past three months of political unrest, with near-daily clashes between protesters and security forces.
Letting Lopez out of prison seems unlikely to cool the streets, analysts said, nor convince Maduro’s critics that his government has had a sudden democratic awakening.
“Did the government merely do this to relieve some international pressure?,” said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst for the International Crisis Group. “Seems hardly plausible, since by conceding this major point they only encourage the opposition – internal and external – to go for more.”
There were also reports Saturday that another opposition figure considered a political prisoner, Yon Goicoechea, was released as well. It was not possible to confirm those reports.
Rachelle Krygier contributed to this report from Madrid