By Andrew Cawthorne

 

CARACAS (Reuters) - Three dozen opponents of Venezuela's socialist government were released from prison and reunited with loved ones on Sunday as part of a wider Christmas release, a local rights group said.

 

Lambasted by critics at home and abroad for holding around 270 activists in prison, President Nicolas Maduro's administration said on Saturday it was releasing 80 of them with alternative sentences like community service.

 

Thirteen were paraded in front of television cameras at a meeting with a senior official, Delcy Rodriguez. She harangued them for violence and subversion, but also wished them a happy Christmas.

 

Alfredo Romero, whose Penal Forum group tracks the detention of political activists and protesters, said 36 people had been freed by Sunday morning. But he criticized the government for not giving them a blanket amnesty.

 

"They should release not just some but all of them, and not imprison anymore," he said.

The best-known locally among the newly freed activists were a former provincial mayor, Alfredo Ramos, and an opposition electoral adviser, Roberto Picon.

"I'm happy to be free. I'm with my family," Ramos was quoted as saying in local media.

"It was a tough ordeal, very difficult. It was an arbitrary detention, unjust. I didn't commit any crime."

'CRUEL FARCE'

Maduro, the 55-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez, says all of the jailed activists were there on legitimate charges of plotting to overthrow his government and promoting violence.

Some 170 people died during two rounds of anti-Maduro street protests in 2014 and earlier this year.

Opponents say they are fighting for freedom against a "dictatorship" that has destroyed the OPEC nation's economy and democracy. Maduro accuses them of being part of a global right-wing plot to topple him in a coup.

U.S. politician Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a fierce critic of both Venezuela and Cuba's Communist government, called the pre-Christmas releases in Venezuela a hypocritical gesture.

"Maduro in Venezuela cynically 'releases' 80 political prisoners who were actually innocent, parades and humiliates several on state TV ... and expects thanks for Christmas 'mercy'," tweeted the Republican U.S. representative from Florida.

"What a cruel farce."

Venezuela's best-known detained politician is Leopoldo Lopez, who remains under house arrest in Caracas, accused of spearheading violence in 2014.

(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)