Colombia deported two Venezuelan opposition activists within 24 hours Friday, raising alarm that they might face detention or retribution in the neighboring country.
Immigration authorities confirmed the expulsion of Lorent Saleh on Thursday night and Gabriel Valles on Friday for violating the terms of their visas. Saleh is the president of Operación Libertad and a well-known activist who helped organize anti-government protests that rocked the country in February.
Saleh has been detained on several occasions in Venezuela and has accused authorities of beating him. The government accuses him of inciting violence and encouraging attempts to topple the Nicolás Maduro administration.
On Friday, Operación Libertad confirmed that Valles is also one of its members and said it did not know the whereabouts of the men.
Saleh had been living in Colombia since February and told the Miami Herald at the time that he feared being detained and wanted to raise international awareness about Venezuela’s plight.
On Friday, Colombia’s Immigration said Saleh had been in the country on an academic visa since Feb. 19 but had been engaging in political activity “expressly prohibited by Colombian migratory law.” The communiqué also cited an incident in March when Saleh got into a shouting match with Antonio Navarro Wolff, a former M-19 guerrilla and senator, calling him a “coward” for not denouncing the deaths of Venezuelan student protesters.
Immigration said Saleh was facing several court cases and an arrest warrant in Venezuela and that he had not applied for asylum before he was deported. Venezuelan state-run radio said Saleh is wanted on “terrorism” and “conspiracy” charges, among others.
Former Colombian President and current opposition Sen. Álvaro Uribe accused President Juan Manuel Santos of trying to “please” the Venezuelan regime by handing the men over.
Venezuela is one of the international observers of Colombia’s peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and Uribe often accuses Maduro of harboring rebels.
“Santos hands over a student to Maduro even though he won’t ask for the extradition of terrorists that Maduro protects,” Uribe wrote on Twitter.
A video posted by Uribe and others appears to show the moment Thursday night when Saleh was turned over to Venezuelan authorities near Cúcuta, Colombia. In the grainy footage, the activist addresses the camera and blames Santos for his fate.
“They’re violating my rights and putting my life at risk,” he says as Colombian police escorted him away.
Facing soaring inflation, food shortages and rampant crime, Venezuelans took to the streets earlier this year in a crippling protest that left at least 42 dead on both sides of the political divide. The vast majority of the deaths, however, were among protesters, and human rights groups have accused the government of excessive force, arbitrary detention and, in some cases, torture.
Venezuela claims those protests were part of an orchestrated attempt to overthrow the government.