Calls grow for Nicaragua to release jailed opposition figures

Pressure from US, EU and other observers mounts after death of detained opposition leader Hugo Torres on Saturday.

A woman stands in front of a billboard for Daniel Ortega
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has faced widespread criticism for cracking down on opposition leaders and presidential hopefuls ahead of last November's vote, in which he was re-elected for a fourth consecutive term [File: Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters]

Calls are mounting for dozens of opposition figures jailed in Nicaragua to be freed, after the death of a would-be presidential candidate during the weekend spurred fears for the health and safety of others.

Hugo Torres, a 73-year-old former companion of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, died in detention on Saturday after concerns were repeatedly expressed for his wellbeing.

Other inmates also are in dire straits, according to family members and rights defenders, who say the prisoners are malnourished, losing weight, teeth and memory, and getting weaker by the day.

“Many are facing a serious risk to health and life,” the former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Antonia Urrejola, said on Twitter.

Ortega, who secured a fourth consecutive term in November elections, has faced widespread criticism from rights groups, opposition figures and international observers who decried the vote as “a sham”.

They also decried a months-long government crackdown on dissent during which dozens of opposition figures – including seven presidential hopefuls – were detained in what rights groups said was an effort to guarantee Ortega’s re-election.

Torres was expected to be a candidate in that presidential vote, but he was arrested along with the other opposition leaders.

On Monday, the European Union’s external affairs spokesman, Peter Stano, sent “deep condolences” to Torres’s family and called for an independent investigation into his death. “We reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners … subjected to inhumane detention conditions” in Nicaragua, Stano tweeted.

US State Department Assistant Secretary Brian Nichols also said that “continuing to detain prisoners under these conditions, especially the elderly, is unacceptable” and urged “their immediate release”.

Costa Rican Foreign Minister Rodolfo Solano expressed “concern” about the health of the remaining detainees and in a statement urged Nicaragua to allow a visit by representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The Organization of American States (OAS) said it “categorically condemns the persecution and arbitrary detention” of Nicaraguans and urged the immediate release of all political prisoners.

“The General Secretariat of the OAS considers the fact of keeping political prisoners, with terminal illnesses and without necessary medical assistance, an abominable act, violating their fundamental rights,” it said in a statement.

Torres, who had risked his own life to break Ortega out of jail in the 1970s during the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship, later became a critic of the president and entered opposition politics.

The prosecutor’s office did not state the cause of Torres’s death, and said that he was transferred to a hospital “from the moment his health condition deteriorated”.

But Monica Baltodano, a Torres ally now living in exile, said he was taken to hospital on December 17, already unconscious and long suffering ill health.

Jared Genser, a lawyer for some of the detainees, said from Miami that Torres’s death was “completely avoidable and predictable” and “likely not the last”.

The Costa Rica-based rights advocacy group Center for Justice and International Law, for its part, called for the “unconditional liberation” of Nicaragua’s “political prisoners” and said Torres’s death must not go unpunished.

In total, Ortega’s government detained 46 opposition figures, accusing them of undermining Nicaragua’s “national integrity”. To date, 18 have been found guilty and seven sentenced to prison terms of between eight and 13 years.

Another 124 detractors have been in jail since anti-government protests in 2018 met with a brutal crackdown that resulted in 355 deaths and more than 100,000 people fleeing into exile, according to the IACHR.

Source: AFP, Al Jazeera