Venezuela

High-profile political prisoner flees Venezuela in daring escape, vows to fight Maduro

Ousted Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma greets a journalist before boarding a plane at El Dorado airport in Bogota, Colombia, Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. Ledezma, who was removed as mayor of Caracas and detained in 2015 on charges of plotting to oust President Nicolas Maduro, escaped house arrest and fled to Colombia.
Ousted Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma greets a journalist before boarding a plane at El Dorado airport in Bogota, Colombia, Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. Ledezma, who was removed as mayor of Caracas and detained in 2015 on charges of plotting to oust President Nicolas Maduro, escaped house arrest and fled to Colombia. AP

Antonio Ledezma, one of Venezuela’s highest-profile political prisoners, fled the nation Friday in a daring escape that he said included skirting dozens of checkpoints and crossing the border into Colombia.

Talking to reporters in the Colombian capital of Bogotá, Ledezma said his flight had been “cinematographic” and that he had the help of sympathetic military and police officers.

Colombia’s immigration authorities confirmed that the 62-year-old politician had entered the country, crossing the pedestrian bridge near the busy border city of Cúcuta early Friday. His family and local Colombian media said he would be traveling to Madrid on an overnight flight.

Ledezma had been under arrest since Feb. 19, 2015, when the socialist administration accused him of plotting a coup against President Nicolás Maduro — charges the U.S. State Department has called “ludicrous.”

Along with former presidential candidate Leopoldo Lopez, who has been under arrest since 2014, Ledezma was one of the most internationally recognizable political detainees. And his case is often held up by human rights groups and international organizations as a symbol of the administration’s political repression.

His escape was undoubtedly a blow to Venezuela’s security apparatus. But Maduro made light of the event during a nationally televised speech Friday, acknowledging that Ledezma was on his way to Spain.

“The vampire is flying around the world,” Maduro said. “Don’t send him back to us. You keep the vampire over there.”

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Anti-government demonstrators holds a poster that reads in Spanish "The jails won't shut the truth" and the image of opposition leader arrested Antonio Ledezma during a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. Opposition members called a demonstration to protest the seating of a special assembly to rewrite the constitution. Observers will be closely watching the turnout as the arrest of several mayors and the opposition's decision to compete in regional elections despite concerns the election for the constitutional assembly was marred by fraud. Ariana Cubillos AP

María Corina Machado, who belongs to Ledezma’s hard-line Alianza Bravo Pueblo party, said the politician had been worried that he would be yanked from house arrest and put in prison amid government attempts to force the divided opposition to the negotiating table.

“Political prisoners don’t flee,” Machado said in a statement. “They liberate themselves.”

Speaking to radio reporters in Cúcuta shortly after he entered Colombia, Ledezma said he planned to become a “pilgrim” of the world and keep fighting for Venezuela’s freedom.

He also demanded that Maduro resign “and allow a transitional government.”

“Maduro cannot keep torturing the people of Venezuela,” he said. “Maduro is starving the people of Venezuela to death.”

While he didn’t provide details about his escape, Ledezma told Colombia’s RCN television that he “had to pass more than 29 national guard and police checkpoints. But God is great.”

Ledezma’s escape comes as the South American nation is in a deep economic and political crisis that has sparked hyperinflation and food shortages.

The former mayor, who held office from 2008 until his arrest, blasted the government for making billions of dollars in bond payments while many Venezuelans “can’t even afford to buy an empanada.”

In a statement, Ledezma’s wife, Mitzy, said the couple’s home in Venezuela’s capital was raided and wrecked by military intelligence after it became clear that he’d gone missing.

“The prisoners can no longer be hostages of a narco-government,” she said in a voice mail that was shared by some of Venezuela’s leading opposition parties, adding that Ledezma would keep “working for our beloved country.”

While Ledezma will undoubtedly be a new thorn in the government’s side, he’s also been a vocal critic of the MUD opposition coalition, accusing them of playing into the government’s hands by participating in talks and elections despite an uneven playing field.

The non-profit Foro Penal, a Venezuelan human rights organization, says there are some 342 people in Venezuela being detained for political motives. The government insists it doesn’t jail political opponents, saying instead that they are politicians and activists who have broken the law.

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