Nicaragua has released 222 political prisoners, including leading opposition figures, student activists and other critics of longtime President Daniel Ortega, and sent them to the United States in what Washington described as a “constructive step”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said there was one American citizen among the freed prisoners, welcomed their release on Thursday as a step “towards addressing human rights abuses” in Nicaragua.
Keep readinglist of 3 items
The decision also “opens the door to further dialogue between the United States and Nicaragua regarding issues of concern”, Blinken said in a statement, adding that the release was “the product of concerted American diplomacy”.
A senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity earlier in the day, said that many of those freed had “spent years in prison, many of them for exercising their fundamental freedoms, in awful conditions and with no access to due process”.
Among those released were former Nicaraguan presidential hopefuls Arturo Cruz, Juan Sebastian Chamorro Garcia, Miguel Mora and Medardo Mairena, as well as prominent student activist Lesther Aleman, according to a Nicaraguan judicial document.
The New York Times reported that the US government sent a plane to the Nicaraguan capital of Managua to fly the freed prisoners to Washington, DC. They arrived about noon local time (17:00 GMT).
We welcome the 222 Nicaraguan political prisoners released by the Government of Nicaragua today. We will continue to support improved conditions for the Nicaraguan people.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) February 9, 2023
Ortega has maintained that his imprisoned opponents and others were behind the 2018 protests that he said were part of a plot to overthrow him.
Tens of thousands of people have fled into exile, most notably to neighbouring Costa Rica, since Nicaraguan security forces cracked down on those anti-government demonstrations.
More recently, the US and European Union have accused Ortega of launching a new campaign of unjustified arrests in the lead-up to the 2021 elections, as dozens of opposition leaders and presidential hopefuls were detained.
US President Joe Biden’s administration denounced the vote, which saw Ortega win a fourth consecutive term, as a “sham” – and Washington and its allies have heaped new sanctions on the government in Managua.
Many of those arrested have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms, often on charges of “conspiracy to undermine national integrity”.
In June of last year, then-United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the situation in the Central American country was deteriorating amid arbitrary detentions, harsh prison conditions, a lack of due process, and curbs to freedom of association, among other issues.
“I strongly urge the government of Nicaragua to uphold – not move further away from – its human rights obligations. I call on authorities to immediately cease policies which are today only serving to isolate the country and its people from the regional and international communities,” she said.
On Thursday, the senior Biden administration official said Washington facilitated the transportation of the freed individuals to the US, where they will be paroled for humanitarian reasons into the country for a period of two years.
The official said those who left Nicaragua did so voluntarily and are to receive medical and legal assistance upon arrival in the US.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price also said the Biden administration was providing hotel accommodations to the former prisoners and working with “partners” to help them settle into the country.
Meanwhile, back in Nicaragua, a judge read out a statement saying that the 222 prisoners had been “deported” under an order issued on Wednesday that declared them “traitors to the country”.
Octavio Rothschuh, a magistrate on the Managua Appeals court, also said they were deported for actions that undermined Nicaragua’s independence and sovereignty.
Separately, the Nicaraguan Congress on Thursday unanimously approved a constitutional change allowing “traitors” to be stripped of their nationality. It will require a second vote in the next legislative session later this year.
The way Thursday’s prisoner release was carried out has drawn some concern from rights advocates, including Tamara Taraciuk, acting Americas director at Human Rights Watch, who said it was “one more example of the arbitrariness of justice, handled at the whim of Ortega”.
“For there to be a democratic transition, it is essential to continue monitoring the restrictions on civic space and the abuses in Nicaragua,” Taraciuk wrote on Twitter.
Still, Arturo McFields, the former Nicaraguan envoy to the Organization of American States, who resigned from his post last year over the Ortega government’s human rights record, said the release was “excellent” news.
“Hallelujah, glory to God,” he said in a video posted on Twitter.
Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, also welcomed the move, saying in a tweet that the ex-detainees “were imprisoned only for demanding rights & speaking up against Ortega’s regime of horror”.
Who else was released?
While the identities of all those released were not immediately clear, family members of some of those freed confirmed that their loved ones were flying to Washington, DC.
Berta Valle, the wife of opposition leader Felix Maradiaga, said the US Department of State told her that her husband was on the plane, as reported by The Associated Press news agency.
Georgiana Aguirre-Sacasa, the daughter of Nicaragua’s former foreign minister Francisco Aguirre-Sacasa, also told The Guardian newspaper that her father was among those freed.
“This is huge,” she said. “This has been a very long slog for us and I just can’t believe it.”
According to US officials cited by The Associated Press, also among those on board the flight were Cristiana Chamorro, who had been a leading presidential contender before her arrest in 2021.
The daughter of former President Violeta Chamorro, she was sentenced last March to eight years in prison after being found guilty on charges of money laundering that she denied.