Venezuela frees jailed activists, ex-presidential candidate

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's government has freed a former presidential candidate and several student activists who were jailed during anti-government protests in 2014.

Former opposition candidate Manuel Rosales was imprisoned in October 2015 on charges of illicit enrichment upon returning to Venezuela after six years of exile in Peru. A former governor of Zulia state who ran for president in 2006, he was released before dawn Saturday along with five other activists who opposition groups consider to be political prisoners.

The releases come as a two-month-old, Vatican-mediated attempt at dialogue to ease tensions stemming from the country's deep economic and political crisis hangs by a thread over the failure by unpopular President Nicolas Maduro to cede ground to opponents seeking his removal.

But with many in the opposition pushing for a new round of street protests, the Democratic Unity alliance has said it won't participate in the next scheduled meeting on Jan. 13 unless the government meets its demands. Those include releasing more than 100 people it considers to be political prisoners and naming a new board to the government-controlled electoral council.

The most prominent activist released Saturday was Gerardo Carrero, who led a group of hardliner students who camped for weeks outside the U.N. offices in Caracas to draw attention to a government crackdown on protests blamed for scores of deaths.

"Without a doubt, Venezuela is living a deep social crisis and these releases in some way are an escape valve that takes some pressure, especially international, off Maduro," said Alfredo Romero, executive director of Foro Penal, a group of lawyers that defends dozens of jailed activists.

"But it's important to remember that in 2016 there were 55 people jailed and only 43 released," he added.

Venezuela's political crisis has been intensifying since authorities in October blocked an opposition effort to collect signatures and force a recall vote against Maduro.

But even many poor Venezuelans, who traditionally formed the base of the revolution started by the late Hugo Chavez, have abandoned their support for the government amid triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages that have made putting food on the dinner table an all-consuming, daily ordeal.

Rosales, whose small Nuevo Tiempo party has been among the biggest advocates of dialogue, confirmed his release on Twitter. He remains under house arrest.

The five others released still face charges stemming from their activities in 2014, for which they'll have to periodically present themselves to judicial authorities.

All six prisoners had been held in Caracas' El Helicoide prison, a spiral-shaped modernist landmark built as a shopping mall in the 1950s, at the height of oil-dependent Venezuela's economic boom, but which in a fitting metaphor of the country's decline is now the headquarters of the intelligence police.

It's unclear if there will be more releases in the coming days, but Romero said at least one more activist is linked to the same case for which Carrero was charged.

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