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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan authorities have so far released 44 opponents of the socialist government from prison over Christmas, but scores more remain in prison, a rights group said on Tuesday.

President Nicolas Maduro's administration said it is freeing about 80 jailed activists in all, but giving them alternative punishments such as community service for crimes from violence to subversion during protests in 2014 and 2017.

Opponents say those being released - and the nearly 200 others still detained - are pawns of a "dictatorship" that unjustly punishes protest and dissent.

The local Penal Forum group confirmed 44 people have been released since Dec. 23, but criticized the government for manipulating their cases for political gain.

Thirteen of those released were paraded in front of television cameras at a meeting with a senior official, Delcy Rodriguez, who harangued them but also wished them a happy Christmas.

The releases came days before Venezuela's government and opposition were due to resume stuttering mediation talks in the Dominican Republic in early January.

(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

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Reuters