CARACAS, VENEZUELA —
A former Venezuelan defense minister turned staunch government critic was freed from prison early Thursday, making him the second prominent opposition leader to be freed in little more than 24 hours.
A military tribunal granted retired Gen. Raul Baduel parole after he completed six years of a nearly eight-year sentence on corruption charges, his lawyer Omar Tosta told The Associated Press. A short video of Baduel embracing loved ones was tweeted by his daughter after he was discharged from a prison where he's been held alongside Venezuela's most-recognized jailed opponent, Leopoldo Lopez.
He left the hulking gray military prison outside of Caracas around midnight, and returned to his home in the coastal city of Maracay.
"It was a huge surprise, a gift of life from God," said his wife Cruz Maria Zambrano, adding that her husband was overjoyed.
Baduel's release comes just 24 hours after Daniel Ceballos, the former mayor of the restive western city of San Cristobal, was granted house arrest on medical grounds while awaiting trial for his alleged role in inciting violence during last year's anti-government protests.
The two surprise releases could signal a greater leniency on the part of President Nicolas Maduro's socialist administration, which has come under sharp fire from the U.S. over the imprisonment of some 75 anti-government activists on what human rights groups say are trumped-up charges meant to silence dissent.
Baduel drew close to Chavez in their days as army cadets in the 1970s, and with other loyalists, he helped restore the charismatic leftist to power following a brief 2002 coup. But he broke with his longtime friend in 2007, likening a referendum granting Chavez more power to a virtual coup.
In 2009, he was arrested on corruption charges that he says were invented to punish him for defecting from the cause.
As part of his parole, Baduel will be required to present himself before a court every 30 days, and will be barred from speaking with reporters.
Ceballos, hours after being reunited with his family, shouted a statement to the press from a second floor window of a relative's apartment in an upscale part of Caracas, saying his surprise release represented a hopeful sign "that all political prisoners might be reunited with their families."
The 31-year-old leader went on a hunger strike together with Baduel and Lopez in June to demand the government release its opponents and set a date for legislative elections.
The election date has now been set, and a handful of prisoners have been freed, but none before as well-known as Baduel or Ceballos.
Ceballos was arrested in March 2014 on civil rebellion charges related to his support of anti-government demonstrations in San Cristobal that helped ignite a nationwide protest movement. He will be bound by standard house arrest rules prohibiting him from speaking publicly, using social media and engaging in political activity.
U.S. officials have made the release of the opposition leaders a key demand in ongoing talks aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations.
The latest concessions allows Maduro to make a goodwill gesture to the international community, and could have the added benefit of deflating some of the opposition's appeal to undecided voters that they are victims of injustice.