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As 'farce' trials start for Nicaragua's political prisoners, Ortega eyes them as bargaining chips

Journalist and Nicaraguan opposition figure Pedro Joaquin Chamorro is one of the political prisoners arrested last year for treason whose trials begin this week.

The almost 50 political opponents of Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega are expected to be convicted on what rights advocates call "sham" treason charges.

Since last year, almost 50 political opposition leaders have been held in prison or house arrest in Nicaragua by its strongman leader. On Tuesday their trials began — and few people expect them to be fair.

Authoritarian Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega began arresting those opposition figures last summer and sent most of them to the notorious El Chipote prison in Managua.

They included all the candidates who sought to run against him in last November’s presidential election — and they were charged with treason, which under Nicaraguan law today literally means challenging Ortega.

Nicaraguan human rights activists say the defendants’ convictions are all but preordained.

“This whole thing is just a sham, just a farce," said Nicaraguan expat Claudio Acevedo of Miami.

"These trials are being held in the jails itself, not even in a court setting. They’re not being allowed to have any of the human rights attorneys get anywhere near these proceedings.”

Acevedo and other rights advocates believe once Ortega has convicted his opponents, he’ll use them as leverage with the U.S. and other countries — who have called his victory in the November election “illegitimate.”

“He wants to use these political prisoners as a bargaining chip to create pressure in the international community to lift sanctions,” Acevedo said.

The U.S. Congress, using the new RENACER Act, is studying whether to ratchet up economic sanctions against the Ortega regime by booting Nicaragua from the U.S.’s free trade agreement with Central America, known as CAFTA.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.