By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS Venezuela has freed an activist accused of fomenting violent protests in 2014, but opposition leaders said on Friday it was not enough and demanded President Nicolas Maduro's government release all 100 or so jailed opponents.The liberation of Rosmit Mantilla, a well-known activist for the hardline Popular Will party, came amid Vatican-brokered talks between the socialist government and opposition that are focusing on prisoners among other issues. "I inform the country that a few minutes ago I signed my release document," tweeted Mantilla, 33, who went immediately to a hospital for gall bladder surgery after his release late on Thursday. "Thank you Venezuela for the support."Mantilla, who was studying journalism alongside his political activism, was arrested at his grandparents' apartment in May 2014, accused of paying for anti-Maduro protests that led to violence and 43 deaths that year.During months of rallies, riots and street battles in the first half of 2014, the fatalities included both opposition and government supporters, and security personnel.
Supporters say authorities framed Mantilla by placing envelopes of money in the apartment. From prison, Mantilla won election as a substitute legislator in a vote last year when the opposition took control of Venezuela's National Assembly.Maduro, the 53-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez whose popularity has dived during an unprecedented economic crisis, accuses Venezuela's opposition of seeking a coup against him and denies the existence of political prisoners.Government supporters often recall a short-lived coup in 2002 against Chavez, and display arms, explosive materials, cash and private messages as evidence of the crimes and militant intentions of the radical wing in Venezuela's opposition.
Amnesty International welcomed Mantilla's release, saying he was victimized for human rights work."He should have never been made to spend a second behind bars. The Venezuelan authorities must now build on this positive step and release all imprisoned activists and political leaders whose only 'crime' was to disagree with the government," said its Americas director Erika Guevara-Rosas.
That was echoed by opposition leaders, who call Maduro a dictator. "We must keep demanding the release of the other political prisoners, the return of our exiles and an end to persecution," a Popular Will leader, David Smolansky, said. Local rights group Penal Forum says that after Mantilla's release, Venezuela is still holding 108 political prisoners, and using them as chips in the Vatican-mediated negotiations. The opposition coalition puts the number higher at 135.Three activists were released in an early gesture soon after talks began last month. (Additonal reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)
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