CARACAS, VENEZUELA —
Venezuelan jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, transferred from a military prison to house arrest in a surprise move early Saturday, pledged to continue pressuring the country's leftist government to restore democratic norms — and urged his supporters to do the same.
"Today, I am a prisoner in my house, but so are the Venezuelan people," he said in a statement read outside his house by National Assembly lawmaker Freddy Guevara, a leader of the Popular Will party that Lopez founded. "What kept me going in the toughest days was knowing that whatever suffering I endured was nothing compared to our people."
His statement called for Venezuelans to continue street demonstrations against the administration of President Nicolas Maduro and to vote in an unofficial referendum July 16 on whether they support the socialist leader's call to rewrite the country's constitution.
Intense street demonstrations have roiled Venezuela's capital and other cities almost daily since early April, with protesters demanding that Maduro release political prisoners, schedule long-overdue elections and open access to humanitarian aid to offset severe shortages of food, medicine and other basic goods. At least 90 people have died in clashes among anti-government demonstrators, security forces and Maduro supporters.
More demonstrations were expected Sunday.
Released on humanitarian grounds
Lopez, 46, was released from Ramo Verde military prison before dawn Saturday and transferred to house arrest, Lopez's attorney and Venezuela's Supreme Court said.
A court statement said Lopez was granted the "humanitarian measure" for health reasons. On its Twitter account, the court said the move was granted Friday by the court's president, Maikel Moreno.
Lopez was detained in February 2014 for allegedly inciting violence during anti-government protests in which three people died and dozens were wounded. A year later, he was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison.
On Saturday, scores of Lopez's supporters thronged to his house in Caracas, many sporting T-shirts or waving banners with his likeness. They cheered when the opposition leader appeared on the rooftop balcony, waving a Venezuelan flag.
Julio Alberto Vivas, one of the supporters, told VOA he believes Lopez "represents democracy and this government represents the dictatorship."
Journalists at the scene also sought information about rumors that the move was part of a larger deal between the Maduro government and his political opposition.
The Lopez family released a photo to social media showing Lopez inside the home, embracing his young son and daughter.
Lopez's father, Leopoldo Lopez Gil, told a radio station in Spain that he was able to speak with his son "over the phone for over 40 minutes" Saturday. The elder Lopez said his son, now wearing an electronic ankle bracelet, had been isolated in recent days and kept in solitary confinement.
He credited his son's transfer to "considerable international pressure" on the Maduro regime.
The United Nations, various foreign governments and human rights advocates have criticized Lopez's detention as politically motivated.
In February, U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed Lopez's wife, Lilian Tintori, to the White House and then tweeted a photo of their Oval Office meeting, calling for the opposition leader's immediate release.
On Saturday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called Lopez's transfer to house arrest "a significant step in the right direction." She reiterated the "call for the full restoration of Mr. Lopez's freedom and his political rights."
CNN reported Maduro as saying Saturday that he supported the court's decision to transfer Lopez, despite his "absolute and profound differences" with the opposition leader.
Lopez's lawyer, Javier Cremades said the move was a sign of the Maduro government's weakness and "a step forward" for Lopez.
But, he said, Lopez's house arrest didn't indicate a modified or reduced sentence. He said the "perverse" justice system "still has its claws on him."
VOA correspondents Alvaro Algarra and Carolina Alcalde contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.