Venezuela releases opposition lawmaker after four months in custody

FILE PHOTO - Venezuelan lawmaker Edgar Zambrano of the opposition Democratic Action party (Accion Democratica) leaves the congress in Caracas

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan authorities released opposition lawmaker Edgar Zambrano from custody on Tuesday, four months after his arrest on treason charges, a move his allies said was a result of popular pressure, not a sign of goodwill from President Nicolas Maduro.

In a statement, the Supreme Court said a Caracas court with national jurisdiction had ordered Zambrano's "immediate freedom," but added that his case remains open. He would need to report to a judge every 30 days and would be barred from leaving the country, it said.

"I managed to escape from a situation that I hope all political prisoners manage to escape from," Zambrano told reporters after being released.

Venezuela was plunged into a deep political crisis in January when Juan Guaido - the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly - invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing Maduro's May 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

Maduro's government, which calls Guaido a U.S. puppet, has responded by opening various criminal probes into Guaido and stripping many of his lawmaker colleagues of their parliamentary immunity. Many have fled the country. Zambrano was dragged away in his car by a tow truck upon his arrest in May.

Nearly 800 people were arbitrarily detained in Venezuela as of May 31, according to a July report by Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"The liberation of Zambrano and political prisoners is a victory of citizen and international pressure, and the Bachelet report - not a 'kind gesture' from the dictatorship," Guaido said on Twitter on Tuesday.

On Monday, Maduro's ruling socialist party reached a deal with small opposition parties, including Timoteo Zambrano's "Let's Change" party, aimed at resolving the South American country's deep political divide.

Monday's deal was not backed by the mainstream opposition parties who control the National Assembly, including Edgar Zambrano's Democratic Action and Guaido's Popular Will.

As part of the deal, the government said it would ask the justice system to evaluate alternatives to "the privation of liberty" for some prisoners. It also said it would reform the National Electoral Commission, which the opposition accuses of bias in favor of the ruling party.

"The process of freeing political prisoners has begun," Timoteo Zambrano wrote on Twitter. "We celebrate the freedom of our colleague, the deputy Edgar Zambrano."

The two men are not related.

Guaido over the weekend declared a round of talks mediated by Norway's foreign ministry between his allies and the government dead, six weeks after Maduro walked away from the table in protest against U.S. sanctions.


(Reporting by Mayela Armas and Luc Cohen; additional reporting by Corina Pons; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)