Venezuela frees judge, journalist, 20 students: UN

Reuters Geneva, Geneve, Switzerland Jul 05, 2019, 08.33 PM(IST)

Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni waves to supporters outside her house in Caracas June 14, 2013. Photograph:( Reuters )

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Twenty students were also among those freed on Thursday, according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and her office.

Venezuela has freed 22 prisoners including the emblematic cases of judge Maria Afiuni and journalist Braulio Jatar, a senior UN official said on Friday, and an opposition lawmaker called for more releases.

Twenty students were also among those freed on Thursday, according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and her office.

The news came after the UN Human Rights Council held a debate on Bachelet's report of a visit to Venezuela in June.

The report accused Venezuelan security forces of sending death squads to murder young men, but a vice minister rejected that in a speech to the Geneva forum on Friday.

"The welcome releases of 62 detainees then (in June), with a further 22 – including journalist Braulio Jatar and judge (Maria) Lourdes Afiuni – set free yesterday and the authorities’ acceptance of two human rights officers in the country, signify the beginning of positive engagement on the country's many human rights issues," Bachelet said.

A spokeswoman said Bachelet had requested the 22 releases directly to leftist President Nicolas Maduro.

Afiuni was jailed without a warrant shortly after former president Hugo Chavez criticized one of her rulings releasing businessman Eligio Cedeno, who was accused of corruption.

Prosecutors accused Afiuni of taking bribes to free Cedeno. She denied the charges, insisting she released Cedeno because he had been awaiting trial for longer than allowed by law.

Afiuni later said she was raped while in jail and refused health treatment by authorities. Ruling Socialist Party leaders rejected those allegations as a hoax to gain sympathy, but she was later granted house arrest.

She received a five-year sentence in March.

A lawyer representing Afiuni said in a telephone interview that the United Nations had called to say she had been freed, but that an official notice had not been sent.

Jatar, a prominent journalist and lawyer jailed on Venezuela’s Margarita island, was arrested after publicising a protest against Maduro and accused of money-laundering.

Venezuela's Information Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the releases.

"We are really happy about the liberation of Afiuni and Jatar; they should never have been in jail. And we hope this liberation continues," Miguel Pizarro, a member of Venezuela's National Assembly, told reporters in Geneva.

He was accused of treason by the top court in May along with three other opposition lawmakers. Pizarro said he had been living in 'safe houses" since then before coming to Europe to lobby the U.N. and parliaments.

He called for assembly vice president Edgar Zambrano and opposition lawmaker Juan Requesens to be released as well.

"Everything we can do to get a fair and free election to get a new president and a new government in Venezuela, we have to try it - demonstrations, negotiations, sanctions, international pressure, people in the street," Pizarro said.