BOGOTA (Reuters) - Opponents of Colombia President Gustavo Petro on Monday insisted that people jailed for participating in anti-government protests in 2021 were in prison for breaking the law, not demonstrating, after Petro announced plans to name dozens of youths as peace managers, paving the way for their release.
Petro, Colombia's first leftist president who took power in August, promised in his campaign earlier this year to release dozens of young people prosecuted and imprisoned for participating in demonstrations in 2021.
The protests, which rocked the Andean country for almost two months, saw acts of violence and vandalism that ended in dozens of fatalities.
Victims' families, their lawyers and human rights groups say many of the deaths were driven by heavy-handed policing and that prosecutions of those involved are rare and slow.
Designating the imprisoned youths - members of the so-called Primera Linea, a group of hardened protesters who often lead demonstrations from the front - as peace managers would see them freed from jail.
Designated peace managers are tasked with promoting peace over violence.
The law allows the government to make this designation, said Justice Minister Nestor Ivan Osuna, adding that the youths will have to meet certain conditions once freed.
"They'll continue to be linked to the criminal proceedings that are being investigated or prosecuted. It's not a pardon, it's not an amnesty," Osuna said, adding the measure could benefit people who have already been convicted.
The cases of 230 people are being investigated, added Interior Minister Alfonso Prada.
Those imprisoned were not jailed for protesting but because they committed crimes, said former Defense Minister Diego Molano.
Left-wing members of Congress supported Petro's announcement.
"(Paramilitaries), guerrillas, and people who have committed crimes against humanity have been peace managers," Pacto Historico Senator Gustavo Bolivar said on Twitter, saying the designation should be open to people in the Primera Linea.
Opposition politicians questioned Petro's decision.
Those in jail were imprisoned for committing crimes, not for protesting, Miguel Uribe, a senator for the right-wing Centro Democratico party said via Twitter.
"Protesting is a right. Whoever does it must do it peacefully," Uribe said.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Andrea Ricci)