The U.S. Department of State on Saturday called on Venezuela to release more than 100 people it considers prisoners of conscience, including former presidential candidate Leopoldo López, who has been in jail for three years.
“The United States reiterates its dismay and concern about these arrests, and other actions taken by the Venezuelan government to criminalize dissent and deny its citizens the benefits of democracy,” Mark C. Toner, the deputy department spokesperson said in a statement. “We call for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience, respect for the rule of law, the freedom of the press, the separation of constitutional powers within the government, and the restoration of a democratic process that reflects the will of the Venezuelan people.”
Among the prisoners cited were López, Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who will complete his second year under house arrest Sunday, former Mayor Daniel Ceballos, and “many other students, activists, journalists, and peaceful protesters.”
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The statement comes as opposition forces in Venezuela and cities around the world on Saturday marched to mark the third anniversary of López’s detention.
López, who remains one of Venezuela’s most popular politicians, was jailed in 2014 after he led anti-government protests. President Nicolás Maduro blames him for inciting violence that broke out amid the demonstrations that led to at least 43 deaths on both sides of the political divide. He was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison in a trial his followers and human rights group say was rigged and unjustified. On Thursday, his appeal was denied.
In an open letter to his followers, López said that in the days before his arrest authorities had tried to force him to flee the country or seek asylum in an embassy. Instead, he turned himself in.
“I made the decision, which I still believe to be correct,” he wrote. “I would never leave Venezuela, and I wanted to confront this dictatorship. ... Going into hiding or exile were not options. That would have made me a prisoner of my own soul.”
This is the second time in less than a week that the U.S. government has called for López’s freedom. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump held a surprise meeting with López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, at the White House and said he should be “released immediately.”