Emblematic Venezuelan prisoner begins hunger strike for freedom

CARACAS, (Reuters) – An imprisoned former Caracas police commissioner at the center of stalled political talks between Venezuela’s government and opposition went on a hunger strike yesterday, demanding he be released due to frail health.

Ivan Simonovis, 54, was sentenced to 30 years behind bars after being convicted of participating in the assassination of four protesters during a march that triggered a brief coup against the late President Hugo Chavez in 2002.

Freedom for Simonovis has become a rallying cry for the opposition, which has expressed outrage at his imprisonment in a small cell and says his osteoporosis requires urgent medical attention.

The issue was a factor in this month’s collapse of negotiations between the opposition and President Nicolas Maduro’s government. The talks had been aimed at ending street protests that had been raging since February.

Protesters staged near-daily marches over three months to decry crime, inflation and food shortages. It was the worst unrest since a tumultuous two-year period around the time of the coup.

The demonstrations have ebbed in past weeks, but Simonovis’ announcement may rekindle passions in the deeply polarized country.

“All the legal and political efforts to receive a response to the (release) demands I made 10 months ago have been exhausted,” Simonovis said in a letter read by his lawyer in front of the Supreme Court.

“I’m tired of acting in accordance to the law, yet no one listens to me. Despite my health condition and against the will of my family, I’ve decided to start a hunger strike in my cell as of today,” the letter said.

There was no immediate comment from the government.

Simonovis is one the highest-profile cases among several dozen opposition-linked figures who ended up in prison during Chavez’s 14-year rule beginning in 1999. Dozens more went into exile.

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