Venezuela frees political prisoners in Christmas gesture

Christmas brought freedom to some 80 political prisoners in Venezuela as authorities began to release them in show of good will.

Some of them had been jailed this year and others in 2014 for holding demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government accusing it of undermining democracy and leading the oil-rich economy into chaos.

Announcing the decision late on Saturday, Delcy Rodriguez, who was leading an inquiry into the protests, said Christmas is a moment of reconciliation. She asked the prisoners to return to jail for the medical check-up and then go home to spend Christmas with their families.

By Sunday morning, 36 prisoners were released. Among them was Alfredo Ramos, mayor of the north-western municipality of Iribarren, and a dozen police officers from Chacao municipality, an opposition stronghold of Caracas.

Ramos said he felt happy over his release but condemned his arbitrary arrest and 15-month sentence late in July for a crime he said he never committed.

While those jailed consider themselves as political prisoners, the government insists they are being held for acts of violence, conspiracy or treason.

Rodriguez said those affected were being held in civilian and military prisons, and she suggested community service as an alternative to imprisonment.

Opposition parties accuse the leftist government of eroding democracy and ignoring the plight of people facing acute shortage of food and medicines.