Venezuela freed more than 2,000 inmates to improve conditions in its violent and overcrowded prisons at the start of what could be a much larger amnesty across the nation, state media said on Friday.
With about 50,000 prisoners confined to aging facilities designed to hold just 13,000, the penal system is in chaos, rights campaigners and government officials say.
The prisons crisis is a big issue ahead of next year’s election, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez aiming for another six-year term. It drew world attention in June when thousands of troops stormed one jail, guns blazing, to end a deadly insurrection.
State news agency AVN said the release program only applied to inmates serving sentences of five years or fewer and who had behaved well. Factors such as the crime committed and its impact on society were also taken into account.
“These 2,000 ... are citizens who are now outside the prison walls and are returning to their normal lives,” Supreme Court head Luisa Morales told state TV.
“This is not indiscriminate. Do not think the idea is that anyone who asks to be released is going to be freed ... We must ensure that the people released under these conditions really have the possibility to rejoin society,” she said.
It was unclear how many more inmates might eventually be freed under the program. New Prisons Minister Iris Varela has told a local newspaper that as many as 20,000 detainees posed no risk to the public and should be released.
The opposition fears the move will exacerbate Venezuela’s crime rate, already one of the worst in the world.
Crime is routinely listed as the top concern of voters in the continent’s biggest oil exporter ahead of next year’s election.
A study by Mexican think tank Security, Justice and Peace put the murder rate in the capital, Caracas, as high as 118 per 100,000 residents, making it the world’s most dangerous capital city.
Chavez, a former soldier, often accuses his political rivals of stoking fears of crime through propaganda to tarnish the achievements of his socialist “revolution.”
His government says the Caracas murder rate is less than half that cited by the Mexican study.
Analysts say at least half the prison population is made up of pretrial detainees held on remand, sometimes for years.
“That’s something that’s happened over the past couple of years and they have done that basically because of all the pressure about the crime problem, and so it’s really made this prison system deteriorate even further,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert and sociologist at the University of Georgia.
“What they should be doing, and which they have done in the past ... is reviewing these cases to see which are even relevant anymore,” he said.
Chavez ordered the creation of the new Prisons Ministry as chaos unfolded in June at the sprawling Rodeo jail complex in Guarenas town, outside Caracas.
At least 22 people died, including two soldiers, as more than 3,500 troops fought battles with prisoners, some of whom were armed with grenades and high-powered rifles. One group of detainees held out for almost a month before surrendering.