WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Sunday condemned the Venezuelan government’s decision to move Daniel Ceballos, a former opposition mayor accused of fomenting protests, to prison from house arrest and called for his immediate release.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Ceballos’s transfer on Saturday “represents an effort to intimidate and impede the Venezuelan people's right to peacefully express their opinion Sept. 1,” when the opposition plans a major demonstration against the government of President Nicolas Maduro.
Ceballos was arrested in 2014 on accusations he helped lead violent unrest in the tumultuous western city of San Cristobal, where he was mayor. He denies the accusations.
Opposition leaders called his arrest an effort to quash dissent and describe Ceballos as a political prisoner. Maduro calls him a criminal who sought to destabilize the country, and denies Venezuela holds political prisoners.
Patricia de Ceballos said agents from the Sebin intelligence service arrived at their residence in the capital Caracas at around 3 a.m. on Saturday saying they were going to conduct a medical exam for her husband, who was granted house arrest in 2015 for health reasons.
The interior ministry said Ceballos' house arrest had been suspended because he had attempted to escape from his home and planned to stir up violence at the Sept. 1 demonstration.
“The United States is deeply disturbed by the Venezuelan government's decision to move opposition leader Daniel Ceballos from house arrest to prison,” Kirby said in a statement.
“The basic underpinnings of the rule of law in Venezuela have degraded to an alarming degree. There is no place in a democratic society for employing the instruments of the state to bully, intimidate and silence the political opposition,” he said.
Venezuela has faced intense international pressure to free jailed opposition leaders including Ceballos and Leopoldo Lopez, another former mayor who was also imprisoned in 2014 in connection with anti-government demonstrations.
The issue complicated a rapprochement effort last year between Caracas and Washington, which have been at ideological loggerheads since the 14-year rule of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Andrea Ricci