Venezuela’s best-known jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez hugged his family and celebrated after being granted house arrest on Saturday following three years’ imprisonment for leading anti-government protests.
Hours after his pre-dawn transfer from a military jail, the 46-year-old Lopez appeared behind a wall of his home in the capital Caracas, waving the Venezuelan flag and punching the air before a crowd of supporters who cheered and cried upon seeing him.
His surprise release, aided by international pressure, gave some rare cheer to Venezuela’s opposition who have otherwise seen President Nicolas Maduro’s government give few concessions in their demands for freedom of jailed activists, general elections and fixes for an economic crisis.
“Despite being under house arrest, he showed his face to the country,” said Maria Garcia, 36, a business consultant, at his house. “What we need to do now is stay in the street, because we need to achieve not just the freedom of Leopoldo but also the freedom of the Venezuelan people.”
Lopez, a photogenic, Harvard-educated former mayor and economist, would likely be a popular opposition presidential candidate if able to run in any future vote. He is serving a sentence of nearly 14 years.
It was not clear, however, if his return home would materially weaken Maduro, who is plowing ahead with a plan to create a parliamentary superbody that will be able to rewrite the constitution and even dissolve state institutions.
Opposition leaders were quick to demand full freedom for Lopez and several hundred other jailed Maduro activists, and to insist their three months of street protests – which have led to at least 90 deaths – would continue.
In a message read by his party’s No. 2, Freddy Guevara, Lopez urged opposition supporters to continue their street protests against Maduro, including rallies planned for Sunday.
The opposition has long called Lopez a political prisoner, and leaders around the world, including U.S. President Donald Trump, have pressed for his full freedom.
Maduro has for years refused to pardon Lopez, describing him as a dangerous terrorist who sought to overthrow him through street violence. Government supporters also often note Lopez’s role in a short-lived 2002 coup against the late former leader Hugo Chavez when he helped arrest a minister.
Venezuela’s Supreme Court said Lopez had been granted house arrest due to health problems, but his family said he is in good shape and he looked unimpaired as he waved enthusiastically to supporters.
The government denies the existence of political prisoners, saying Lopez and all detained activists have been held on legitimate charges, including coup-plotting.
State ombudsman Tarek Saab said in a press conference that he received a letter on July 7 from Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, requesting he be given house arrest.
The release was aided in part by the involvement of former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who has for years maintained talks with the Maduro government, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Venezuelan officials said.
While Maduro could be seeking to ease pressure with Lopez’s return to home, there was no sign of compromise on other fronts.
At his behest, Venezuela on July 30 will elect a controversial Constituent Assembly, a move the opposition calls a naked power grab meant to keep the socialists in office against the will of the people.
Several hundred supporters stood outside Lopez’s home in the upscale Caracas neighborhood of Los Palos Grandes, some wearing shirts emblazoned with Lopez’s face. They waved Venezuela’s flag, chanted slogans and set off fireworks to celebrate.
“I think this is the first day of the transition,” said Maria Antonieta Witzka, 57, a physical therapist. “The government is realizing that we are the majority.”
Though a hero to many, Lopez has also faced criticism from some within the opposition for at times being headstrong and domineering. He founded the Popular Will party after splitting with the First Justice party that he had also helped found.
Though Lopez had publicly called for peaceful resistance to Maduro in 2014 and was behind bars during most of the unrest that year which killed 43 people, prosecutors said his speeches sent subliminal messages and constituted a call to violence.
One of the prosecutors who led the case later fled the country and said the proceeding had been a mockery of justice.
The case has long been a cause celebre for opposition supporters over what they deem the Maduro government’s trampling of human rights.
Lopez is the scion of wealthy families and a direct descendant of the sister of Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar as well as of Venezuela’s first president, Cristobal Mendoza.
Pro-government critics paint him as a dangerous radical in the pocket of Venezuela’s wealthy elite and the U.S. government.
“The Supreme Court has granted (house arrest) to someone who caused one of the most terrible episodes of recent years,” said Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino on state television.
But he said the decision showed tolerance, dialogue and political maturity by the Maduro government.
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Eyanir Chinea, Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas; Silene Ramirez in Santiago, and Robert Hetz in Madrid; editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Mary Milliken)