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Venezuelan Opposition Leader Released From Prison, Placed Under House Arrest

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we have news from Venezuela. Earlier today, Venezuela's most prominent opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, was released from prison. Leopoldo Lopez has spent the past three years in prison. He was sentenced to 14 years but has been released to house arrest. The surprise move is seen as a victory for Venezuela's political opposition which has been holding massive protests against President Nicolas Maduro as the country continues to live through dire shortages of basic supplies such as food and medicine. The protests have led to violent clashes with the military that have killed at least 90 people and led to increasingly authoritarian moves by Maduro's government. Reporter John Otis is with us now from Caracas to tell us more. Hi, John. Thanks for joining us.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Thanks a lot.

MARTIN: So what's the scene like on the streets of Caracas at the moment?

OTIS: My hotel is just a couple of blocks down from where Lopez's house is located. And since the wee hours of the morning, people have been gathering there honking horns. They've been singing the national anthem, shouting political slogans and just having a big celebration.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

OTIS: And inside his house - from inside, Lopez tweeted out some photos of him hugging his kids and having a nice reunion with his family. He made a brief appearance outside, holding up a clenched fist in a Venezuelan flag. He's not permitted to speak directly with the media, but he did issue a statement. And he said, I stand firm in my opposition to this regime and in my fight for liberty.

MARTIN: Tell me more about Leopoldo Lopez. Why was he in prison in the first place?

OTIS: Well, Lopez, he's a former mayor of a Caracas suburb. He's extremely articulate. He's kind of like this candidate from central casting. And a few years ago, he was going to run for president. But what happened is that during anti-government protests three years ago, he was arrested for inciting violence. The government tries to paint him as a real radical, but it really was a kangaroo court. In fact, one of the government prosecutors involved in the case later fled to the U.S. and said the whole trial was a sham. So, you know, this really is a big moment for the opposition that he's recovered at least somewhat of his freedom. He's still under house arrest, as we mentioned.

MARTIN: Do we know or has the government said why Lopez was transferred this morning from the military prison where he'd been held to house arrest?

OTIS: The government said it was for health reasons. He had spent some time in solitary confinement. And he'd also undergone a hunger strike for a while. But he looked fine to me. He looked pretty muscular and in good shape and energetic. What may have happened is that the government simply may have just backed down to pressure.

Maduro's very unpopular, as you mentioned. Venezuela's political and economic crisis just grows worse by the day. There have been months of anti-government protests. Ninety people have been killed. And Lopez was a rallying point for the opposition and a real symbol - a very high-profile symbol of government oppression. Maduro might have just calculated that by, you know, letting him out of jail and putting him under house arrest, he'd help calm down the opposition and maybe gain a little bit of breathing space.

MARTIN: Did you have any sense of whether that will occur? Is this the kind of move that is likely to appease the opposition, if you will?

OTIS: I talked to some of the opposition activists gathered outside Lopez's house this morning, and they said, no way, there's going to be more protests. Mainly, Maduro's just extremely unpopular. And he's ignoring calls to hold early presidential elections, which is one of the opposition's main demands. What Maduro wants to do now actually is write a whole new constitution. So on July 30 here, there's going to be elections for a special assembly to do just that. The opposition fears that this is really going to change all the rules of the game, that it could dissolve the Congress, that the special assembly could cancel upcoming elections. So there's a real big fear here that the democratic space here in Venezuela is going to shrink even further.

MARTIN: That's John Otis reporting from Caracas. John, thank you.

OTIS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.