Chavez foes hope for 'political prisoner' amnesty

Venezuela's opposition leaders are calling on President Hugo Chavez to grant amnesty to the country's self-proclaimed political prisoners.

Opposition congressman Edgar Zambrano said he was optimistic after presenting a proposed bill amnesty bill to the National Assembly on Thursday.

"We perceive willingness within the government" to liberate some government opponents and allow others to return to Venezuela after years of exile, Zambrano said.

Chavez and his closest collaborators have not commented publicly on the initiative backed by relatives of imprisoned government adversaries and numerous political parties.

But Zambrano said he believes the president is open to discussing the issue and hopes the proposed legislation will provide the framework for an agreement.

The congressman met with Vice President Nicolas Maduro last week to discuss cases of more than a dozen politicians behind bars, and he said he received assurances that the president was inclined to consider an amnesty petition.

Rights activists echoed Zambrano's calls for the release of jailed Chavez foes.

"Venezuela has had a historical tradition of freeing political prisoners," Marino Alvarado, director of the local human rights organization Provea, said Friday.

Alvarado noted in a telephone interview that Chavez and dozens of other military officers benefited from the tradition after they were imprisoned for launching a botched 1992 coup attempt.

Chavez and his cadre of rebellious officers were immediately imprisoned following the military uprising and many of them faced prosecution for allegedly committing crimes carrying 30-year prison sentences. After they spent more than two years in prison, then-President Rafael Caldera pardoned them.

Alvarado said he was optimistic Chavez could sign an amnesty decree within a week.

"There are real possibilities that some political prisoners will be freed in the coming days," he said.

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