By Gisela Salomon and Christopher Sherman | Associated Press
MEXICO CITY — A Nicaraguan judge sentenced Roman Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez to 26 years in prison Friday, one day after he refused to get on a flight to the United States with 222 other prisoners.
Octavio Ernesto Rothschuh, chief magistrate of the Managua appeals court, handed down the sentence, which is the longest given to any of the opposition figures and critics of the government of President Daniel Ortega in the last couple years.
Álvarez was arrested in August along with several other priests and lay people. Ortega said Thursday night that before boarding the plane to Washington Álvarez said he would not go without being able to consult with other bishops. Something Ortega called, “an absurd thing.”
The president said Álvarez, who had been held under house arrest, was then taken to the nearby Modelo prison.
His sentencing had been scheduled for next week.
Álvarez had been one of the most outspoken religious figures still in Nicaragua as Ortega intensified his repression of the opposition.
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Sanctions and public criticism of Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega had been building for months, but both United States and Nicaraguan officials say the decision to put 222 dissidents on a plane to Washington came suddenly.
The plane was barely off the ground Thursday when word began to spread of the surprise release of opposition figures, journalists, activists and priests that most considered political prisoners.
The majority had been sentenced in the past couple years to lengthy prison terms. The mass release came together in a couple of days and the prisoners had no idea what was happening until their buses turned into Managua’s international airport.
“I think the pressure, the political pressure of the prisoners, the political prisoners became important to the Ortega regime, even for the people, the Sandinista people who were tired of abuses,” opposition leader Juan Sebastian Chamorro, who was among those released, said during a press conference Friday. “I think (Ortega) wanted to basically send the opposition outside of the country into exile.”
In Ortega’s mind, they are terrorists. Funded by foreign governments, they worked to destabilize his government after huge street protests broke out in April 2018, he maintains.
Ortega said Vice President Rosario Murillo, his wife, first came to him with the idea of expelling the prisoners.
“Rosario says to me, ‘Why don’t we tell the ambassador to take all of these terrorists,’” Ortega recounted in a rambling speech Thursday night. In a matter of days, it was done.
“The timeline, again, was very short,” said a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity, suggesting it the transfer together in as little as two days. “Once we were aware of this, we were able to spring into action and ensure the safe transportation of these individuals.”
Nicaragua came up with a list of 228 prisoners it wanted off its hands. The U.S. struck four of them off the list, and then two more refused to get on the plane Thursday, officials from both countries said.
On Friday, Emily Mendrala, a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, emphasized to reporters that it was Nicaragua’s decision.
“It could be that the pressure of the sanctions had an impact, but it was a unilateral decision,” she said. “There was no negotiation, and Nicaragua didn’t ask for anything.”
Ortega had said as much the night before. He framed it as an issue of principle and sovereignty.
“We aren’t asking that they lift the sanctions. We aren’t asking for anything in exchange,” he said. “They should take their mercenaries.”
Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer who handled the cases of opposition leaders Chamorro and Felix Maradiaga, said Friday that “dictators never release political prisoners because they want to, they release them when they have to, when releasing them is the least worst choice.”
It could have been that the constant attention to the prisoners’ plight from human rights organizations, the United Nations and foreign governments made them more a liability than simply expelling them from Nicaragua.
“This seems to be some sort of escape valve because there has been a lot of international advocacy, of pressure from the EU, from from the U.S., from others,” said Antonio Garrastazu, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute in Washington. “They do more harm inside of Nicaragua than they do outside.”
Ortega upped his pursuit of political opponents in early 2021, looking to clear the field ahead of presidential elections in November of that year. Security forces arrested seven potential presidential contenders and Ortega romped to a fourth consecutive term in elections that the U.S. and other countries termed a farce.
Nicaraguan judges sentenced several opposition leaders, including former high-level officials of the governing Sandinista movement and former presidential contenders, to prison terms for “conspiracy to undermine national integrity.”
One of the two prisoners who decided to stay in Nicaragua was Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez. He had been on house arrest before Thursday, but Ortega said he was now held in the Modelo prison. His continued imprisonment promises to be a continuing problem for Ortega in a Nicaragua that remains strongly Catholic.
Álvarez is scheduled to be sentenced next week for conspiracy and spreading false information.
“The Catholic Church, I think, is one of the main institutions that the Ortega regime really, really fears,” said Garrastazu. “The Catholic Church are really the ones that can actually change the hearts and minds of the people.” Álvarez and other priests and lay people were arrested in August after the government shut down a number of radio stations owned by the Matagalpa diocese.
The United States has given the released prisoners two years of humanitarian parole during which time they will be able to work and seek asylum.
Spain on Friday offered Spanish nationality to the Nicaraguans and added that it would take in any other Nicaraguans who find themselves in the same situation as the released prisoners.
Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said the offer is being made because Nicaragua is moving to strip the freed prisoners of their citizenship. He made the announcement in comments to the Spanish private news agency Servimedia and his ministry confirmed them.
While the plane was still in the air Thursday, Nicaragua’s congress voted to approve a proposed constitutional change that would allow the government to take away their citizenship.
The State Department’s Mendrala said “we have a serious concern about the news that they cancelled their citizenship.”
Genser, the human rights lawyer, said “this is a very clear and flagrant violation of international law. Everyone has a right to their own citizenship and a right to free movement.” He said he was investigating through which international mechanisms the move could be challenged.
Maradiaga and Chamorro, both opposition leaders and potential challengers to Ortega for the presidency in 2021, told journalists Friday they would continue to fight for Nicaraguan democracy from outside the country.
Maradiaga compared Nicaragua’s expulsion to the Roman empire, when banishment was an alternative to death. He said such a step was taken when a dictator could no longer put up with opponents, but recognized there would be consequences to killing them.
Chamorro, who was arrested in 2021, and sentenced to 13 years in prison, said that no “single generation in the 200 years of Nicaragua’s independent life has not suffered war, abduction, violation of rights, exile or murder and that has to change.”
Salomon reported from Miami. AP reporter Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Spain contributed to this report.
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