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International pressure grows for the release of political prisoners in Venezuela

Venezuelans protested outside of the 69th General Assembly of the United Nations for the release of political prisoners last week.
Venezuelans protested outside of the 69th General Assembly of the United Nations for the release of political prisoners last week. (Germania Rodriguez @GerrRod)

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government is the target of growing criticism for imprisoning opposition leader Leopoldo López, former Mayor Daniel Ceballos and Enzo Scarano and hundreds of students and protesters who participated in anti-government demonstrations that began in February.

This past week, President Barack Obama called for Lopez's release during a conference occurring parallel to the 69th General Assembly of the United Nations, because he is well aware of the "suspicious circumstances" of his arrest.

"In Venezuela, Leopoldo López," Obama said, including the Venezuelan in a list of leaders imprisoned in Burundi, Egypt, China and Vietnam. "They deserve to be free and should be released."

Obama and other American officials "are also aware that the Venezuelan authorities did not provide due process or guarantees of a fair trial for Lopez and other prisoners," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden in a statement provided to The Associated Press.

Hayden added that Obama referred to Lopez to "underline those concerns and to urge the Venezuelan government to improve the climate of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms."

There was no immediate response from Venezuela to the words of Obama about Lopez.

Lopez has been held for seven months in a military prison on the outskirts of Caracas, and faces trial for violent events occurred in the capital in February. The courts have not allowed his defense to present evidence or witnesses.

Obama's request comes in addition to those already made ??by Pope Francis and the secretary general of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza, calling for dialogue and reconciliation between the government and the opposition.

"The opposition cannot sit at the negotiation table when a number of leaders are held prisoners," Insulza said.

The president of Peru, Ollanta Humala, also joined in, expressing concern over the political crisis in the country and reiterated the right of Venezuelans to protest.

Speaking to a mostly empty room during the UN General Assembly, Maduro did not mention Lopez and expressed solidarity with Oscar Lopez Rivera, a Puerto Rican nationalist imprisoned for 35 years in the United States whom he described as a political prisoner.

As he spoke, hundreds of Venezuelans protested outside the UN headquarters for the release of political prisoners.

Venezuela wants to exchange weapons for scholarships, operations

Plagued by rampant violence, the Venezuelan government began a campaign this week to voluntarily swap weapons for scholarships, medicines and surgical procedures.

"We hope to collect many weapons; every weapon out of circulation is a less chance of violence, death and crime," said Miguel Rodriguez Torres, Minister of Interior and Justice, after starting the first day of delivery of weapons in a country where it is estimated there is one gun for every two inhabitants.

Maduro approved a budget of 300 million bolívares (about $47.6 million at the official rate) to create a national fund to reward those who voluntarily give up their guns.

The authorities set up 60 centers to receive weapons, including four in the capital of Caracas, where people who want to surrender their weapons can do so anonymously if they wish and in return receive some sort of economic stimulus.

According to authorities, people showed up from very early on the first day of weapon collecting and turned in everything from revolvers, automatic pistols and shotguns, in exchange for educational scholarships, electrical appliances, building materials, medicine or surgery in public hospitals.

With a rate of 53 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, the UN considers Venezuela as the second most violent country in the world after Honduras.