Fernando Llano / AP

Venezuela frees another prominent opponent

Release of second government critic comes 24 hours after first was granted house arrest on medical grounds

A former Venezuelan defense minister turned staunch government critic was granted early release from jail, making him the second prominent opposition leader to be freed in little more than 24 hours.

A military tribunal late Wednesday granted parole to retired Gen. Raul Baduel after he completed six of a nearly 8-year sentence on corruption charges, his lawyer Omar Tosta said. A short video of Baduel embracing loved ones was tweeted by his daughter after he was discharged from the military prison outside Caracas, where he's been held alongside Venezuela's most-recognized jailed opponent, Leopoldo Lopez.

Baduel's release comes just 24 hours after Daniel Ceballos, the former mayor of the restive western city of San Cristobal, was granted house arrest on medical grounds while awaiting trial for his alleged role in inciting violence during last year's anti-government protests.

Combined, the two surprise releases could signal a greater leniency on the part of President Nicolas Maduro's socialist administration, which has come under sharp fire from the U.S. over the imprisonment of some 50 anti-government activists on what human rights groups say are trumped-up charges meant to silence dissent.

Ceballos, hours after being reunited with his family, shouted a statement Wednesday to the press from a second floor window of a relative's apartment in an upscale part of Caracas, saying his surprise release represented a hopeful sign "that all political prisoners might be reunited with their families."

The 31-year-old leader, who is awaiting trial on charges of civil rebellion, went on a hunger strike together with Baduel and Lopez in June to demand the government release its opponents and set a date for legislative elections.

The election date has now been set, and a handful of prisoners have since been freed, but none as well-known as Baduel or Ceballos.

Ceballos was arrested in March 2014 on charges related to his support of anti-government demonstrations in San Cristobal that helped ignite a nationwide protest movement. He will be bound by standard house arrest rules prohibiting him from speaking publicly, using social media and engaging in political activity.

U.S. officials have made the release of the opposition leaders a key demand in ongoing talks aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations.

The latest concessions allows Maduro to make a goodwill gesture to the international community, and could have the added benefit of deflating some of the opposition's appeal to indecisive voters that they are victims of injustice.

The Associated Press

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