CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was transferred to house arrest Saturday after spending more than three years behind bars in a military prison.___
The Supreme Court, in a statement, said it had granted Lopez the "humanitarian measures" for health reasons and "serious signs of irregularities" in the handling of the case that it did not specify.
Outside Lopez's house in the capital, Caracas, a few dozen supporters arrived carrying Venezuelan flags to celebrate along with journalists looking for information about whether the transfer may have been part of a larger deal between the opposition and President Nicolas Maduro's government.
The opposition has been demanding the release of dozens of activists it consider political prisoners, the most prominent being Lopez, in order to initiate talks aimed at resolving a political crisis that has left more than 90 people dead and hundreds injured.
"We spoke for like 40 minutes. He's hugging his children, he's with his wife. .... I'm sure they are celebrating," Lopez's father, who shares his son's name, said from exile in Spain. He said in recent days Lopez had been isolated in his prison cell without food and attributed his son's transfer to the considerable international pressure on Maduro's government.
"He told me himself recently: Dad, it's always darkest right before the break of dawn," he added.
Lopez, 46, was sentenced in 2015 to nearly 14 years in prison for inciting violence during anti-government protests in which three people died and dozens were wounded.
Venezuela has been rocked by months of near-daily protests again this year, fueled by widespread discontent over shortages of basic goods, galloping inflation and allegations that Maduro is flouting democratic norms.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy broke the news of Lopez's pre-dawn transfer in a message posted on Twitter. His predecessor, Jose Luiz Rodriguez Zapatero, has been traveling back and forth to Venezuela for months trying to broker a deal on jailed opposition leaders and jumpstart a dialogue between the government and opposition and was in Caracas as recently as last week.
Colombian former President Ernesto Samper, who had been working with Zapatero on some sort of humanitarian release for Lopez, praised the "positive gesture" by the government, predicting it would open a space for dialogue across Venezuela's bitter political divide so that in the coming months there could be transparent, democratic elections.
There has been much speculation about Lopez's since several people, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, reported in early May that he had been rushed to a hospital in very serious condition. The report was later denied by the government, which released video of Lopez saying he was alive and well.
But more recently supporters have stepped up complaints that Lopez was being tortured and punished for supporting the street protests against Maduro — claims that the government has denied. Lopez's party said he had not been allowed to see his lawyers for 90 days and had been in solitary confinement for the last 32 days.
Lopez's lawyer in Spain, Javier Cremades, said the terms of Lopez's release mean he will be allowed to serve out his sentence at home and cannot leave.
"It is a gesture of weakness of the Maduro regime and of the opposition's strength," Cremades said. "It is a step forward, and very positive news."
Lawmaker Gaby Arellano of Lopez's Popular Will party said his release represents "the end of the dictatorship."
Foreign governments and human rights groups have criticized Lopez's detention as politically motivated. A Venezuelan prosecutor on the case who later sought asylum in the United States has said he was ordered by the government to arrest Lopez despite a lack of evidence.
Lilian Tintori, Lopez's wife, has campaigned in Venezuela and abroad to try to win freedom for her husband.
In February she met with President Donald Trump in the White House. Trump tweeted a photo of the Oval Office encounter and called for Lopez to be released "immediately."
"It gives us great pleasure that Leopoldo Lopez is at his home with his family!" said Henrique Capriles, another opposition leader, via Twitter. "He must be given his full freedom, like all the political prisoners!"