Bishop Álvarez is sentenced in Nicaragua to 26 years in prison

Nicaraguan justice sentenced Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez on Friday to 26 years and four months in prison and stripped him of his nationality, according to official sources in Managua, a day after the religious leader refused to fly to the US with the another 222 released on Thursday.

The sentence imposed by magistrate Octavio Ernesto Rothschuh, of the Managua appeals court, which is the longest applied to dissidents and critics of the government of President Daniel Ortega in the last two years.

Álvarez was arrested in August along with other priests and citizens. Ortega said Thursday night that Álvarez refused to board the plane for Washington without first consulting with other bishops. Ortega considered it “absurd.”

The president said that Álvarez, who was under house arrest until then, was transferred to the nearby Modelo prison. His sentencing was scheduled for next week.

Álvarez was one of the most prominent religious figures still remaining in Nicaragua amid Ortega’s increasing repression of the opposition.

Consulted by The Associated Press, lawyer Vilma Núñez, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (Cenidh), said that the judge “arbitrarily and at the last minute” added new crimes against Monsignor Álvarez that were not included in the initial sentence.

The original sentence mentioned the crimes of “conspiracy” and “propagation of false news”, to which the charges of “aggravated obstruction of functions” and “contempt for authority” were later added.

Cenidh condemned via Twitter “the hatred and disqualifications with which Daniel Ortega referred to Monsignor Rolando Álvarez” on Thursday night and warned that this “represents an additional risk” for him. “The personal integrity and life of the monsignor are in danger,” he said.

AP also requested a reaction on the sentence from the president of the Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference, Monsignor Carlos Herrera, but the request was not immediately answered.

The ex-bishop of Managua exiled in Miami, Monsignor Silvio Báez, did speak out and sent a message on Twitter where he described as “irrational and unbridled the hatred of the Nicaraguan dictatorship against Monsignor Rolando Alvarez”, describing as “vindictive” those who “they lash out” against him because of his “moral height and his prophetic coherence.”

The prison sentence for the Catholic leader was announced a day after the release of 222 dissidents, considered political prisoners, who flew to Washington on Thursday.

US sanctions and public criticism of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega had been escalating for months, but both US and Nicaraguan officials say the decision to put 222 dissidents on a plane headed for Washington was sudden. .

The aircraft had only taken off on Thursday when the first news emerged of the surprise release of opposition figures, journalists, activists and priests who were considered by most to be political prisoners.

Many of them had already been sentenced in the last two years to long prison terms. They had little contact with each other and even less with the outside world.

For Ortega they are terrorists. Funded by foreign governments, they worked to destabilize his government after huge street protests broke out in April 2018, according to the Nicaraguan president.

Ortega said that Vice President Rosario Murillo, who is his wife, was the one who had the idea of ​​expelling the prisoners.

“Rosario tells me, and why don’t we tell the ambassador to take all these terrorists away?” Ortega said in a speech he gave Thursday night. In a matter of days it had already materialized.

“The timeline, again, was very short,” said a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity, suggesting that the transfer process took just two days. “Once we realized this, we were able to take action and ensure the safe transport of these people.”

Nicaragua had a list of 228 prisoners that it wanted to get rid of. The United States removed four of them from the list and then two more refused to board the plane on Thursday, officials from both countries said.

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Emily Mendrala, the deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs, emphasized Friday in a telephone press conference that it was a Nicaraguan decision.

“It may be that the pressure of these sanctions had an impact, but it was a unilateral decision,” Mendrala said in Spanish. “There was no negotiation and Nicaragua did not ask for anything.”

Ortega had said it the night before. He framed it as a matter of principle and sovereignty.

“We are not asking for the sanctions to be lifted. We are not asking for anything in return,” she expressed. “Let them take their mercenaries.”

Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer who handled the cases of opposition leaders Félix Maradiaga and Juan Sebastián Chamorro, said Friday that “dictators never release political prisoners because they want to, they release them when they have to, when releasing them is the right thing to do.” least worst option.

It may have been that the constant attention paid to the prisoners’ situation by human rights organizations, the United Nations, and foreign governments made them a greater responsibility than simply expelling them from Nicaragua.

“This seems to be a kind of safety valve because there has been a lot of international pressure, pressure from the EU (European Union), from the United States, from others,” said Antonio Garrastazu, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute. in washington.

It is possible that Ortega wanted to remove them and prevent them “from doing more damage inside Nicaragua than outside,” Garrastazu added.

Ortega increased his persecution of political opponents in early 2021, seeking to clear the field ahead of presidential elections in November of that year. Security forces arrested seven potential presidential candidates and Ortega won a fourth consecutive term in elections the United States and other countries considered a sham.

Nicaraguan judges sentenced several opposition leaders, including former senior officials of the ruling Sandinista movement and former presidential candidates to prison terms for “conspiracy to undermine national integrity.”

The United States granted the released prisoners a humanitarian parole for two years. During that time they will be able to work and request asylum in the country.

Spain, meanwhile, offered them Spanish nationality and said it could also add other Nicaraguans who are in the same situation as the released prisoners.

Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares explained that Spain was making the offer because of Nicaragua’s decision to strip the prisoners of their citizenship. He made his comments to the private Spanish news agency Servimedia and his ministry confirmed them.

As the plane was still in the air on Thursday, Nicaragua’s Congress voted to approve a proposed constitutional change that would allow the government to strip them of their citizenship.

Maradiaga and Chamorro, both opposition leaders and potential opponents of Ortega in his presidential aspirations, told reporters on Friday that they will continue fighting for democracy from abroad.

Maradiaga compared the expulsion from Nicaragua to the Roman Empire, when exile was an alternative to death. He said such measures were taken when a dictator could no longer tolerate his opponents, but he recognized that killing them would have consequences.

Chamorro, who was arrested in 2021 and sentenced to 13 years in prison, said that “not a single generation in 200 years of independent life in Nicaragua has not suffered war, kidnapping… exile or murder and that has to change.”

“There has not been a single generation in 200 years of independent life in Nicaragua that has not suffered war, kidnapping, violation of rights, exile or murder and that has to change.”

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