Venezuela's Leopoldo Lopez moved to house arrest in good health, relatives say
Government releases Democratic political leader to house arrest
CARACAS, Venezuela – A triumphant Leopoldo Lopez appeared from behind a fence and kissed the Venezuelan flag. He raised it with his right arm and stretched it, as supporters cheered in front of his home on Saturday.
The Venezuelan Supreme Court released the politician, a fierce opponent of President Nicolas Maduro, from prison and transferred him to house arrest Saturday after more than three years in a military prison.
"This is a step in the march toward freedom," Lopez wrote in a letter in Spanish that lawmaker Freddy Guevara read aloud to reporters and allies. "I carry no resentment, nor will I give up my beliefs. My position against this regime is firm as are my convictions to fight for a real peace, coexistence, change and freedom."'
The euphoric crowd of supporters chanted in unison, "Yes, we can!"
The Venezuelan government announced the "humanitarian measures" were due to health reasons and "serious signs of irregularities" in the handling of the case. But a relative who left Lopez's house in Caracas said he was in good health.
Lopez’s father, who shares his son’s name, said from exile in Spain that his son’s transfer was the result of international pressure on Maduro.
Dozens of supporters celebrated his release outside of his home, as they demand the release of other political prisoners. Lopez, 46, was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison for inciting violence during anti-government protests in 2014.
Carlos Vecchio, Lopez's close friend and also a member of the Voluntad Popular party, said this is only the first step.
"He's in his house, but he's not completely free, so it's not enough. It's not enough," Vecchio said.
Vecchio told Local 10 News that Lopez's release came without any warning and although he's thrilled to be back with his family, the political leader isn't wasting any time getting back to work.
"I ask him, 'How do you feel physically and mentally?' and he told me, 'I'm fine, Carlos, but we need to continue this fight,'" Vecchio said.
That sentiment was echoed by other Venezuelans who have made their homes in South Florida, such as Patricia Andrade.
"Leopoldo is a man, he's a father, he has two kids. I'm happy for him, but we need to focus on the conflict," Andrade said.
On July 30, an election will be held to select who will write the country's new constitution. The thing is, the people of Venezuela never actually voted to write a new constitution -- it's an unprecedented move by Maduro that polls show most people in Venezuela oppose.
"We need to keep the eyes open because Venezuela is in a conflict. In three weeks is an illegal election," Andrade said.
"What we are doing on the streets in Venezuela, what we are getting from the international community is getting results, so we need to keep pushing in order to get back democracy in our country," Vecchio said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio reported in early May that Lopez had been rushed to a hospital in very serious condition. The report was later denied by the government, which released video of Lopez saying he was alive and well.
Lopez’s party said he had not been allowed to see his lawyers for 90 days and had been in solitary confinement for the last 32 days.
A Venezuelan prosecutor on the case who later sought asylum in the United States has said he was ordered by the government to arrest Lopez despite a lack of evidence.
Lilian Tintori, Lopez’s wife, has campaigned in Venezuela and abroad to try to win freedom for her husband.
"I can't stop thinking about all of the families who are still feeling the pain of separation from their loved ones," Tintori wrote on Twitter Saturday afternoon. "Unjustly imprisoned and fallen ... We will continue to fight for the freedom of political prisoners."
In February she met with President Donald Trump in the White House. Trump tweeted a photo of the Oval Office encounter and called for Lopez to be released “immediately.”
Lopez’s lawyer in Spain, Javier Cremades, said the terms of Lopez’s release mean he will be allowed to serve out his sentence at home and cannot leave.
"It is a gesture of weakness of the Maduro regime and of the opposition’s strength," Cremades said. "It is a step forward, and very positive news."
Lawmaker Gaby Arellano of Lopez’s Popular Will party said his release represents "the end of the dictatorship."
Maduro partisans said the decision in no way exonerates Lopez or the opposition from attempts to destabilize the government.
"We adhere to the supreme court’s decision and hope the (opposition) Democratic Unity Alliance will view it with maturity and stop the violence,"” said Elias Jaua, a close ally of Maduro.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott reacted to the news in both English and Spanish on Twitter. He demanded Lopez's "complete freedom." Cuban-American lawmakers in the U.S. also reacted to the news.
"We will continue to demand freedom for Venezuelan people and release of Venezuelan political prisoners," Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart wrote on Twitter.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said his release to house arrest will "not end the calls for freedom, democracy and the respect of human rights for all Venezuelans. He has committed no crime and should not be under house arrest."
Venezuela has been rocked by months of near-daily protests again this year, fueled by widespread discontent over shortages of basic goods, galloping inflation and allegations that Maduro is undermining democracy in the country.
The Associated Press Fabiola Sanchez, Joshua Goodman and Joseph Wilson contributed to this report.
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