Caracas - Venezuela's opposition is pressing President Hugo Chavez for a Christmas amnesty for scores of his foes in jail and exile over their roles in the many political conflicts of his 14-year rule.
They hope that after a comfortable re-election in October, followed by reconciliatory words about opponents, the socialist leader may be feeling more generous.
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez. Credit: AP
Fanning optimism among relatives and opposition circles, three heavyweight Chavez allies - the vice president, head of Congress and the attorney general - have agreed to study a list of more than 100 names presented by an opposition commission this week.
Perhaps the most controversial case is that of a judge, Maria Lourdes Afiuni, who was jailed in 2009 after defying Chavez in a corruption case. She shocked Venezuelans with an account of being raped in jail and then having an abortion.
Also on the list are Pedro Carmona, who was president for a day during a brief 2002 coup against Chavez and then fled to Colombia; Manuel Rosales, a former presidential candidate accused of corruption and now in Peru; and Ivan Simonovis, a former security official wanted over deaths during the coup.
“We want the many exiled Venezuelans to come home, and for the government's political prisoners to be freed. That would be real proof of a will to promote dialogue and reconciliation,” opposition commission head Antonio Ledezma said.
Chavez, who returned to Venezuela from medical treatment in Cuba on Friday, has not spoken publicly on the issue.
The opposition's list includes 87 people living outside Venezuela and 22 listed as “political prisoners.” Chavez rejects that term, saying any opponents in jail are there for breaking the law, not because of their views on him.
JAIL RAPE ALLEGATION
Given the deep polarization in Venezuela during the Chavez years, and still-open wounds around big events like the 2002 violence, many of his supporters oppose clemency.
“I'm against any amnesty for these criminals,” tweeted American-Venezuelan lawyer Eva Golinger, who is a prominent advocate of the Chavez government.
The proposal highlights a wider debate inside and outside Venezuela over Chavez's rights record.
Critics say he has bullied opponents and trampled on basic rights as he sought to impose a Cuba-style dictatorship, while supporters laud him for taking on a wealthy and once-powerful elite and making them subject to the law.
In the case of Afiuni, Chavez raged against her on national TV, calling her a “bandit” and urging a 30-year prison sentence in 2009 after she freed a local businessman, Eligio Cedeno, accused of subverting currency controls.
Cedeno quickly fled to the United States.
Prosecutors accuse Afiuni of taking a bribe, but the 48-year-old judge insists she was legally obliged to release him because his right to a free trial was being violated.
With her case still dragging through the courts, Afiuni said in an interview with a journalist for a book published last month that she was raped in 2010 and had an abortion in custody.
Amid outrage from Afiuni's supporters and rights groups, Venezuelan Prisons Minister Iris Varela said the allegation was an “odious hoax” intended to whip up hysteria over her case.
Now under house arrest, Afiuni is prohibited from speaking to the media, although she occasionally expresses herself on her Twitter account.
“They're afraid of what she might say,” her brother, Nelson Afiuni, said outside court.
Another sensitive case is that of Simonovis, a 51-year-old former Caracas police commissioner who is serving a 30-year sentence for deaths that happened during shooting near Chavez's presidential palace amid a brief coup in 2002.
Relatives say Simonovis, who is held in a small windowless cell with just an hour outside once a week, is suffering from osteoporosis and needs an urgent transfer to hospital.
“I welcome this initiative,” Simonovis said in a letter to media about the amnesty proposal. “Once again, I urge Venezuelans to show massive, democratic and solid support to this plan.” - Reuters