CARACAS – The Trump administration said Tuesday that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro should not be praised for releasing a few political opponents ahead of a congressional election, when many more opposition activists remain in jail.
“Restoring constitutional rights that were illegally taken away should not be applauded," the U.S. State Department said in a statement. "All of these prisoners should be released immediately and unconditionally."
The Venezuelan government a day earlier said it was pardoning 110 people, including opposition politicians jailed, living in foreign embassies in Caracas or driven into exile. Prisoner rights groups say that just 50 of them are what the opposition considers politically motivated cases.
According to the Caracas-based prisoner rights group Foro Penal, Venezuelan jails hold more than 330 people the opposition considers political prisoners.
Venezuelan officials framed the presidential decree pardoning political occupants as a goodwill gesture to boost participation in a congressional election set for Dec. 6. An opposition coalition led by U.S.-backed politician Juan Guaidó is mounting a boycott, calling the vote rigged.
Maduro in a Tuesday address on state TV accused President Donald Trump of leading a campaign to topple and even kill him. Maduro defended his pardons, saying he assumed full responsibility for the decision done in the spirit of peace and dialogue.
“I'm a warrior, not a coward or traitor,” Maduro said. “As a warrior I wage battles in the name of the people.”
The U.S. leads a coalition of more than 50 nations that backed Guaidó as Venezuela's legitimate leader, pressuring Maduro to leave power.
The State Department described the pardons as “token actions" and said conditions required for free and fair elections are clear.
“Maduro must lift the ban on political parties and candidates, respect Venezuelans’ freedom of speech and the press, end censorship, disband his death squads, provide for an honest and independent electoral commission, and welcome independent international election observers,” the statement said.
The list of people pardoned didn't include prominent opposition leaders such as Leopoldo López, who remains inside a foreign ambassador’s residence in Caracas, or Julio Borges, a powerful opposition lawmaker who is in neighboring Colombia.
Guaidó said the Venezuelan government's list included 26 lawmakers either charged with crimes or jailed. He said Maduro's “dictatorship” is using them as pawns, while continuing to persecute opponents.
Among opposition lawmakers and politicians released from jail late Monday were Renzo Prieto, Gilber Caro and Antonio Geara. Guaidó's chief of staff Roberto Marrero was also freed.
The list of pardons also doesn’t mention six executives of Venezuela’s Houston-based Citgo refineries detained in Caracas on corruption charges for more than two years on charges that their attorneys and relatives say are trumped up.
Two of them are held on house arrest in Caracas while four others remain in jail as their trial plays out.