Nicaragua frees 222 opponents, sends them to U.S.
Some 222 inmates considered by many to be political prisoners of the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega were on their way to Washington on Thursday, a senior Biden administration official confirmed.
The government of Nicaragua decided “unilaterally” to release 222 individuals whom they had imprisoned, said the official, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. The official noted that some of those released had spent years in prison, under terrible conditions for apparently exercising fundamental rights.
Ortega has maintained that his imprisoned opponents and others were behind 2018 street protests that he claims were a plot to overthrow him. Tens of thousands have fled into exile since Nicaraguan security forces violently put down those antigovernment protests in.
The Nicaraguan opposition’s latest count on “political prisoners” held had been 245. It was not immediately clear who was not released.
Among those released was human rights activist and opposition presidential candidate Félix Maradiaga. He had been living in exile in Miami with his wife, former Nicaraguan TV news anchor Berta Valle, and their young daughter, before he returned to Nicaragua in 2021 to challenge Ortega in the presidential election.
Maradiaga was one of more than 20 opposition candidates and leaders whom Ortega threw in prison on "treason" charges that year. During that time, Valle told WLRN she'd received word from relatives in Nicaragua that Maradiaga had lost 50 pounds behind bars.
"For us, he may as well have disappeared," she said.
Jonathan Duarte, a Nicaraguan diaspora leader in Miami who was Maradiaga's presidential campaign manger, told WLRN that Valle, who was one her way to Washington to greet Maradiaga, "was overwhelmed with joy" when she received news of her husband's release from the State Department early Thursday morning.
"We had a very good cry together this morning," Duarte said. "Happy tears."
"But we're very concerned about Félix's condition, physical and emotional. He was in pretty serious isolation for almost an entire year, in solitary confinement ... we're not 100% sure of what torture they suffered in there and what the long-term effects will be."
The U.S. official said the United States facilitated the transportation of the freed individuals to the United States, where they will be paroled for humanitarian reasons into the country for a period of two years.
The official said the U.S. government considered the mass release a positive step by Nicaragua. The official said all of those who left Nicaragua did so voluntarily and are to receive medical and legal assistance upon arrival in the U.S.
Another U.S. official told WLRN that Ortega's move "was certainly a positive step...but it doesn't, in the end, resolve the concerns we have about the deterioration of human rights and rule of law there."
A Nicaraguan judge read a statement saying that the 222 prisoners had been “deported.”
Octavio Rothschuh, a magistrate on the Managua Appeals court, said the deportation was carried out under an order issued Wednesday that declared the prisoners “traitors to the country.” He said they were deported for actions that undermined Nicaragua's independence and sovereignty.
Arturo McFields, Nicaragua’s former ambassador to the Organization of American States, celebrated the release, which he said the U.S. State Department had confirmed to him.
“It is a massive freeing” of prisoners seldom seen, McFields said. He credited the prisoners' families for never letting up the pressure.
Family members of some of those released also confirmed that the prisoners were flying to Washington.
Berta Valle, the wife of opposition leader Felix Maradiaga, said the State Department told her that her husband was on the plane.
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.”
Given the notoriously bad conditions at the infamous El Chipote prison and others, as well as the age of some of the opposition leaders, relatives had feared the terms may effectively be death sentences.
Hugo Torres, a former Sandinista guerrilla leader who once led a raid that helped free then rebel Ortega from prison, died while awaiting trial. He was 73.
Nicaraguan judges also sentenced five Catholic priests to prison this week for conspiracy and spreading false information. It was not immediately known if any of them were among those released.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. AP writer Aamer Madhani reported from Washington and AP writer Christopher Sherman from Mexico City.