Venezuela may free activists, expel foreign diplomats

Venezuela may free activists, expel foreign diplomats
FILE PHOTO: Delcy Rodriguez, president of the National Constituent Assembly, speaks during a meeting of the Truth Commission in Caracas, Venezuela August 16, 2017. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino/File Photo
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By Fabian Cambero

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s leftist government may release 80 anti-government activists, and expel two senior diplomats from Canada and Brazil after criticism over rights, an official said on Saturday.

Delcy Rodriguez, head of the pro-government Constituent Assembly, said the legislative superbody was recommending those detainees be freed shortly and given alternative punishments such as community service and compensation for victims.

Rights groups and opponents of President Nicolas Maduro say authorities are unfairly holding 268 political prisoners being punished for protesting against “dictatorship.”

Maduro, the 55-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez, says that is nonsense and all jailed activists are there on legitimate charges of violence and subversion.

“Let it be understood that the events promoted by the extremist Venezuelan opposition, which caused Venezuelans’ deaths, must not be repeated,” Rodriguez told reporters.

Some 170 people died in violence around two bouts of anti-Maduro street protests in 2014 and earlier this year.

The potential release of dozens of opponents, albeit with alternative sentences, could inject life into stuttering political talks between the government and opposition due to continue in the Dominican Republic in early January.

Western nations and Latin American neighbours have been increasingly critical of Maduro this year, accusing him of stamping on democracy and human rights. The government says foreign nations are trying to encourage a right-wing coup.

Rodriguez said the Constituent Assembly – which various foreign countries refuse to accept – was also recommending Brazil’s ambassador Ruy Pereira and Canada’s charge d’affaires Craig Kowalik both be declared “persona non grata.”

There was no immediate response from either nation.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has been especially critical of Maduro, imposing sanctions on him and other senior officials earlier this year.

“We urge Maduro’s regime to respect human rights,” the U.S. Embassy tweeted on Saturday, calling for the freedom of the 268 people activists consider political prisoners.

“Free them during this holiday time.”

(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

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