CARACAS, VENEZUELA —
One of the Venezuelan opposition's most prominent leaders started his first day of house arrest Wednesday after a surprise release following a year-and-a-half in prison.
Daniel Ceballos, former mayor of the restive western city of San Cristobal, was released to a relative's apartment in an upscale part of Caracas for health reasons late Tuesday night.
The 31-year-old leader, who is awaiting trial on charges of civil rebellion, suffered from kidney and stomach problems during a 20-day hunger strike in June, according to his supporters.
The release could signal that the country's socialist administration is taking a new approach to the more than 50 anti-government activists human rights groups say remain jailed on invented charges.
"Ceballos was jailed on some heavy charges. I think this is going to give the other prisoners a lot of reason to hope that the same thing will happen to them,'' said Dimitris Pantoulas, a political and business consultant based in Caracas.
In May, Ceballos won a primary from behind bars to run for a congressional seat, but elections officials later barred him from holding public office.
He went on a 20-day hunger strike with another jailed opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, to demand that the government set a date for congressional elections and release the people they consider political prisoners. The election date has now been set, and several prisoners have been freed.
Ceballos was arrested in March 2014 on charges related to his support of anti-government demonstrations in San Cristobal that helped ignite a nationwide protest movement. He is expected to be bound by standard house arrest rules prohibiting him from speaking publicly or engaging in political activity.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, he was pictured joyfully hugging his wife and three young children.
U.S. officials have made the release of Lopez and Ceballos a key demand in ongoing talks aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations.
This release allows the administration of President Nicolas Maduro to make a goodwill gesture to the international community, and could have the added benefit of taking away some of the opposition leader's power as a symbol of injustice.
Pantoulas pointed to the case of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who was released to house arrest for health reasons in April, and has become something of an afterthought in opposition calls to free political prisoners.
"When it's house arrest, people don't consider them jailed anymore,'' Pantoulas said.