CARACAS - Venezuela freed Tuesday four opponents of President Nicolas Maduro, but activists demanded the immediate liberation of more than 100 others they say are also unjustly imprisoned.
“I’m so happy after living through these storms,” one of the four, bank messenger Gilberto Sojo, told Reuters ecstatically after his release overnight, surrounded by friends and family.
Sojo and the other three — engineer Vladimir Araque, retired general Romer Mena and lawyer Leopoldo D'Alta — were arrested in 2014 and 2015 on various accusations of fomenting violence and plotting against the socialist government. All deny the charges.
They were among the lesser-known Maduro opponents jailed since he won an election to replace Hugo Chavez in 2013.
The ruling Socialist Party says its opponents, encouraged by the United States, want to seize power via a coup and denies the existence of political prisoners in Venezuela.
But critics say Maduro has turned the South American OPEC nation into a dictatorship, far surpassing his predecessor Chavez in political repression.
Resuming a more militant stance against Maduro after the collapse of Vatican-mediated talks over the last two months, the opposition-controlled National Assembly restarted a symbolic political trial of the president on Tuesday.
Jesus Torrealba, head of the opposition coalition, said happiness at Tuesday's release of the prisoners was mixed with anger over the continued jailing of others.
“All the political prisoners are innocent; they all deserve freedom,” he said.
The subject of prisoners had been high on the list of the dialogue between government and opposition that began at the end of October but stalled last week.
The four's release Tuesday followed half a dozen other releases in goodwill gestures after talks began.
Rights groups complain the government is using detainees as pawns, releasing a few to appease international pressure but maintaining many more in jail unjustifiably.
Sojo, 51, an activist in a poor community of Caracas for hardline Popular Will party, was accused of plotting to bomb a Caracas court to free Popular Will leader Leopoldo Lopez, Venezuela's best-known prisoner, according to supporters.
They said explosives were later placed on his motorbike and the accusation invented to discredit him.
“He was completely innocent. Everyone is just so happy that he is finally out: we have been hugging, jumping, shouting, crying,” said his wife, Carolina Gonzalez, 43, by his side at the National Assembly where he was named a substitute legislator after the opposition won the legislature last year.