It was great news for the loved ones of 222 political prisoners, who were freed by Nicaragua’s authoritarian government on Thursday (February 9). Among them were some of the top opposition politicians and business leaders. They were sent to the United States in a surprise operation.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega does not take kindly to criticism and opposition, and anyone who opposes him is considered ‘anti-national’ or ‘traitor’.
Nicaragua’s Judicial Council confirmed that the 222 prisoners were deported, saying they had been declared “traitors” . They have been ‘permanently deprived of their political rights, including the freedom to run for public office’. The Nicaraguan National Assembly later passed a constitutional reform that allows the government to strip “traitors” of their citizenship, according to local media reports.
The ‘Washington Post’ reports that the prisoners had endured harsh conditions.Those who were held at El Chipote, a notorious prison that housed high-profile politicians and activists, were denied visits from their families for months. Many were not permitted to have books or writing materials. One detainee was reduced to reading and rereading the label on a tube of toothpaste. The prisoners had little access to sun or fresh air. Some lost considerable weight.
The freed prisoners included some of Nicaragua’s best-known opposition politicians. Among them was journalist Cristiana Chamorro, the daughter of former president Violeta Chamorro and a presidential aspirant herself in 2021. She had been under house arrest.
Other onetime presidential hopefuls released included her cousin, Juan Sebastián Chamorro, and the Harvard-educated academic Félix Maradiaga.
“It was a bittersweet moment,” he said. The prisoners were at last free. But “we were leaving our home country,” unsure when they could go back.
Monsignor Rolando Álvarez, a Roman Catholic bishop in the central province of Matagalpa, who was offered the chance to board the U.S.-chartered plane declined to leave Nicaragua. Friends of the bishop have said he preferred to remain a prisoner rather than go into exile. He has been charged with conspiracy and spreading false news, allegations that church leaders have called absurd.
President Daniel Ortega was a major figure in the Sandinista revolution, which toppled the U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. Ortega was president from 1985 until 1990, when he lost a reelection bid to Violeta Chamorro. Since returning to power in 2007, he has steadily tightened his grip over Nicaragua’s judiciary, legislature and electoral machinery.
Ortega crushed a nationwide anti-government uprising in 2018. Nearly all of his political opponents were jailed, as were leaders of the business community, human rights activists and, unusually, Catholic priests. The government has shut down universities, independent media outlets and around 3,000 nongovernmental organizations. The repression has contributed to a spike in irregular migration; more than 164,000 Nicaraguans were detained on the U.S. border in 2022, more than three times as many as in the year before.
It was unclear why President Ortega, 77, made the move. Will Freeman, a Latin America fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that Nicaragua was coming under growing pressure not only from the United States but from Latin American countries to release the prisoners. For the Nicaraguan government, Freeman said, “this is mostly about buying some breathing room internationally.”
PREPARED BY INTERN JOSEPH C A FROM MEDIA REPORTS