More prominent opposition leaders have been arrested in Nicaragua, as concerns grow over what observers have described as a crackdown on President Daniel Ortega’s opponents ahead of elections set for later this year.
Police on Sunday arrested Ortega critic Suyen Barahona, leader of the left-wing opposition Unamos party, after three other party officials were arrested by police over the weekend.
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Barahona is among nearly a dozen opposition leaders as well as presidential hopefuls who this month have been detained or disqualified from running in the presidential contest, which will be held in November.
“It’s not just potential candidates any more, it’s political leaders,” said former general and Sandinista dissident Hugo Torres. “This is not a transition to dictatorship, it is a dictatorship in every way.”
The crackdown began on June 2 when police raided the home of Cristiana Chamorro, journalist and would-be presidential candidate, on charges of money laundering shortly after she announced her intention to run in the elections.
At least 11 political leaders have been arrested, while journalists have also been questioned by authorities in recent weeks.
Ortega loyalists argue the authorities are only enforcing the law.
Under legislation passed in December, Ortega’s government has the power to unilaterally declare citizens “terrorists” or coup-mongers, classify them as “traitors to the homeland” and ban them from running as candidates.
The law punishes those “who lead or finance a coup … encourage foreign interference, ask for military intervention … propose or plan economic blockades, applaud and champion the imposition of sanctions against Nicaragua or its citizens.”
But observers have accused Ortega, who has not yet confirmed his intention to seek re-election for a fourth consecutive term, of seeking to remove any challengers.
On Sunday, Nicaraguan police said Barahona was arrested for seeking to undermine the country’s independence and sovereignty, as well as for “inciting foreign interference in internal affairs, requesting military interventions and organizing with foreign financing”.
Unamos slammed the latest raids and arrests. “These actions against the Unamos leadership are part of escalation of repression from the Ortega regime against the democratic opposition,” the party said in a statement.
Last week, a spokesman for United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Guterres had called on the Nicaraguan authorities to fully respect their international human rights obligations and release the political leaders.
“These developments can seriously undermine the public’s confidence in the democratic process ahead of the November general elections,” Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price also said Ortega “is becoming an international pariah” and was moving Nicaragua “farther away from democracy”.
The United States on Wednesday announced sanctions against four Nicaraguan officials who support Ortega, including the president’s daughter, accusing them of undermining democracy and abusing human rights.
“President Ortega’s actions are harming Nicaraguans and driving the country deeper into tyranny,” said Andrea Gacki, director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, in a statement.