Venezuela opens debate on political prisoner amnesty

Lilian Tintori (C), wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, and relatives of other jailed figures, hold signs during a session of the National Assembly in Caracas on February 4, 2016 (AFP Photo/Juan Barreto)

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuelan lawmakers opened debate Thursday on an amnesty bill for political prisoners, a key legislative initiative for the opposition majority that risks unleashing another political crisis with President Nicolas Maduro's administration.

"After 17 years of hatred and division, we must unite to exit this crisis. We Venezuelans are crying out for unity, peace and national reconciliation, and that is why it is so necessary to pass this amnesty," said opposition lawmaker Delsa Solorzano.

Some jailed opposition leaders' families were present in the National Assembly, including Lilian Tintori, the wife of protest leader Leopoldo Lopez, who held a sign reading "Amnesty + reconciliation = peace."

Lopez was sentenced to 14 years in September on charges of inciting violence at anti-government protests that shook the country in 2014 -- a ruling that drew international condemnation.

The bill is expected to easily pass the legislature, dominated by the opposition since it won a landslide election victory in December.

It would grant amnesty to what the opposition says are 75 political prisoners plus all Venezuelans living in self-imposed exile because of differences with Maduro's government and that of his late predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

Maduro's administration rejects the bill and says the prisoners in question are legitimately convicted criminals.

"We do not support this law because it would create impunity, which the perpetrators are seeking to use to pardon themselves," said minority leader Hector Rodriguez.

Venezuela, which is mired in a deep economic crisis, is riven by political turmoil after the opposition won the legislature for the first time since Chavez launched his leftist "revolution" in the South American oil giant in 1999.

Maduro is certain to veto the amnesty bill, which could set up a new power struggle between the executive and the legislature, with the Supreme Court as arbitrator -- a body the opposition accuses Maduro of packing with loyalists.

As debate opened on the floor of the legislature, thousands of government supporters marched to the presidential palace to commemorate the anniversary of a failed 1992 coup by then paratroop officer Chavez, which launched his political career.