October 31, 2018 / 10:42 PM / 18 days ago

Venezuelan court frees men jailed for video mocking Maduro - groups

CARACAS (Reuters) - Two Venezuelan firefighters who were jailed last month after mocking unpopular President Nicolas Maduro in a viral video portraying him as a donkey were freed on Wednesday, two human rights groups said.

Ricardo Prieto, 41, and Carlos Varon, 45, walked out of a court hearing with a local judge in the western state of Merida, according to the human rights observatory of the University of the Andes, which is tracking the case. A judge had previously ordered they be held until trial.

The two were arrested in September at the Merida fire station where they worked after the video was published. The case has called attention to growing accusations of censorship by Maduro’s government as oil-rich Venezuela’s economy remains mired in recession for a fifth year.

The video shows a man leading a donkey through a fire station, while a narrator pretends to guide the president on an official visit. Opponents of the leftist Maduro, who blame him for the economic meltdown, have long dubbed him “Maburro” in a play on the Spanish word for donkey, “burro.”

The observatory considers the men “freed with restrictions,” because they will be required to appear before the court every 30 days, said Mayda Hocevar, the observatory’s director.

They had been charged with “inciting hate” under a law passed last year. Their lawyers have said they made the video as a joke.

“We demand full freedom, they committed no crime,” Espacio Publico, a rights group focussing on freedom of speech, wrote on Twitter.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reporting by Vivian Sequera; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Leslie Adler

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