CARACAS: Venezuela's leftist government began releasing some 80 anti-government activists on Saturday, and threatened to expel envoys from Canada and Brazil after criticism over rights.
Delcy Rodriguez, head of the pro-government Constituent Assembly, told reporters the legislative superbody was recommending 80 detainees be given alternative punishments such as community service and compensation for victims.
Thirteen newly-released activists were later paraded in front of state TV cameras during a meeting with Rodriguez, a hardline ally of President Nicolas Maduro. They looked stony-faced as they sat listening to her admonishments in the formal surroundings of Venezuela's colonial-era foreign ministry.
Rights groups and foes of Maduro say authorities are unfairly holding 268 political prisoners for protesting against "dictatorship." Maduro, the 55-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez, says all jailed activists are there on legitimate charges of violence and subversion.
"Let it be understood that the events promoted by the extremist Venezuelan opposition, which caused Venezuelans' deaths, must not be repeated," Rodriguez said.
Some 170 people died in violence around two bouts of anti-Maduro street protests in 2014 and earlier this year.
BOOST TO TALKS?
The releases, albeit with alternative sentences, could inject life into stuttering political talks between the government and opposition due to resume in the Dominican Republic in early January.
Western nations and Latin American neighbours have been increasingly critical of Maduro this year, accusing him of stamping on democracy and human rights. The government says foreign nations are trying to encourage a right-wing coup.
Rodriguez said the Constituent Assembly - which various foreign countries refuse to accept - was also recommending Brazil's ambassador Ruy Pereira and Canada's charge d'affaires Craig Kowalik both be declared "persona non grata."
There was no immediate reaction from Canada, but Brazil's foreign ministry responded sternly.
"If confirmed, the Venezuelan government's decision to declare Brazil's ambassador persona non grata shows once more the authoritarian stance of Nicolas Maduro's administration and its lack of willingness to engage in any dialogue," it said, promising reciprocal measures.
U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has been especially critical of Maduro, imposing sanctions on him and other senior officials earlier this year.
Under new stewardship with the arrival of charge d'affaires Todd Robinson last week, Washington's embassy in Caracas called on Saturday for the freedom of all jailed activists.
"We urge Maduro's regime to respect human rights," it tweeted. "Free them during this holiday time."
(Additional reporting by Tatiana Bautzer in Sao Paulo; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Susan Thomas)