U.N. rights boss urges Venezuela to free opposition leader

A man walks behind a cardboard figure of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez at the headquarters of political party Popular Will (Voluntad Popular) in Caracas June 5, 2014. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Stephanie Nebehay GENEVA (Reuters) - Top United Nations human rights official Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein called on Monday for the release of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and scores of others detained in a crackdown on protests that began in February. Zeid said in a statement issued after meeting Lopez' wife Lilian Tintori in Geneva on Friday that the "prolonged and arbitrary detention" of political opponents and protesters was only exacerbating tensions in the oil-rich Andean country. A U.N. panel of independent experts said last month that Lopez, who led protests that rocked the country, and Daniel Ceballos, a former mayor of the border city of San Cristobal, were detained arbitrarily, he said. "I call on the Venezuelan authorities to act on the opinions of the Working Group and immediately release Mr. López and Mr. Ceballos, as well as all those detained for exercising their legitimate right to express themselves and protest peacefully," said Zeid. More than 3,300 people, including minors, were detained for brief periods between February and June and more than 150 cases of ill-treatment including claims of torture were reported, according to allegations received by his office. President Nicolas Maduro said the protests, in which demonstrators routinely blocked streets with barricades and hurled rocks at police, were part of a plan destabilize his government. The government has acknowledged some instances of abuse by security forces and jailed some officials as a consequence, but Maduro defended the overall actions of security forces as "restrained" in the face of violent attacks. Zeid voiced concern at the fact that at least 69 people were still detained in connection with the protests. "Journalists and human rights defenders have also reported threats, attacks and intimidation," he added. Zeid, Jordan's former ambassador to the U.N. who took up the top U.N. rights job in September, urged Maduro's socialist government to ensure due process is upheld in all trials in line with international standards. Lopez, the leader of a radical opposition faction, is accused of masterminding anti-government demonstrations that killed 43 people. He turned himself in in February and has been kept in a military jail. His trial began in July. Tintori, speaking after raising the case with Zeid on Friday, told reporters: "I told him about the situation in Venezuela, the disappeared, the assassinated, our sadness and frustrations and powerlessness in the face of systematic human rights violations". A public hearing for Lopez was set for Oct. 28, she added: "We are waiting for the judicial system to liberate Leopoldo." Venezuela last week won a seat on the U.N. Security Council for two years from next January. Caracas is expected to use it to back allies such as Syria and Russia in their diplomatic wrangling with the United States, part of its broader effort to continue the anti-Washington foreign policy of late leader Hugo Chavez. "Now that Venezuela has been elected to the Security Council, more than ever it has to follow what the U.N. says," Tintori said, referring to the opinion issued by the U.N. working group on arbitrary detention. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Editing by Hugh Lawson)