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The revolving door of the Ortega-Murillo regime in Nicaragua: once again, the jails are filled with political prisoners

After several political prisoners were released and exiled back in February, arrests have accelerated again. The Central American country is sinking into unstoppable repression

Wilfredo Miranda
Daniel Ortega y Rosario Murillo
President Daniel Ortega with his wife – First Lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo – in a stock photo.

Two members of the National Assembly and another priest have become the latest political prisoners in Nicaragua, jailed by the regime of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.

In a context of unchecked repression — and following the release and forced exile of 222 political prisoners this past February — the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front has maintained a “revolving door” policy around its carceral apparatus. As of August, the Mechanism for the Recognition of Political Prisoners in Nicaragua — a human rights collective — counts a total of 89 political prisoners in the country.

“Between August 1 and August 31 of 2023, 24 arbitrary arrests were recorded [as a possible result of] political persecution. Of these, five individuals were released and at least 15 remain in prison,” details a report that was presented by the opposition organization.

The human rights collective is denouncing a new method of repression being employed by the regime, which consists of holding trials that are carried out without the accused person being transferred from the jail to the court. The hearings, instead, are held through videoconferences. Detainees are not permitted to communicate with the defense lawyer of their choice.

“Complaints continue to be received from detained people who have been victims of the repressive waves [since] April of 2023,” the researchers add in their report, referring to the political persecution that the regime has unleashed against Catholics. “In this way, the state of terror among the population is evident. Due to fear of reprisals, [Nicaraguans] keep quiet about the cases of their relatives, who have been unjustly detained for up to more than two months.”

“This hunt is framed by the dictatorship’s objective of maintaining a totalitarian state… they’ve been violating, for example, citizens’ rights to freely profess faith and engage in political resistance for a long time,” explains Juan Diego Barbarena — a member of Nicargua’s Blue-White National Unity (UNAB) opposition coalition — in an interview with EL PAÍS. “It’s a scenario of continuity of totalitarianism, but it’s also a manifestation of the regime’s weakness, because it needs to keep Nicaraguans within the framework of a de facto state of emergency in the streets. [The regime] needs to continue arresting political dissidents, to position itself for an eventual political negotiation, which isn’t in sight for now. The regime [needs to have an advantage] when making concessions.”

The most notable arrest in recent months was that of Brooklyn Rivera, a social leader of Indigenous origin, who founded the Yapti Tasba Masraka Nanih Aslatakanka (YATAMA) political party — or the “Children of Mother Earth,” in the Miskito language. On September 29, the 71-year-old legislator was hiding in his home, in the city of Bilwi, when police burst in and detained him.

Rivera had remained in his home since last May, when he returned to Nicaragua from a trip abroad, after participating in the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, where he criticized his country’s government. Despite the regime denying him the right to return to his own country, he did so anyway. According to Rivera’s daughter, the legislator was being monitored since he came back to Nicaragua.

In 2007, Rivera became a political ally of the Sandinista National Liberation Front — the party led by Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. However, this alliance was broken in 2015, when he was dismissed as a legislator from the National Assembly, accused of engaging in land-trafficking. In 2016, YATAMA participated as a regional party in the parliamentary elections: Rivera was once again elected as a deputy.

YATAMA is the dominant political force in eastern Nicaragua. After Rivera’s recent arrest, the regime canceled his party’s political status, while also confiscating its properties. Then, on October 1, the police arrested Rivera’s substitute deputy and the regional president of the YATAMA Indigenous party, Elizabeth Henríquez James. Both were subsequently removed from the list of lawmakers appearing on the National Assembly’s website.

“The arrest of Brooklyn Rivera is also aimed at imposing totalitarian control over [Nicaragua’s] Caribbean coast, especially in the north, where YATAMA is the main political party. We must remember that next year, in 2024, there will be regional elections in the Caribbean region,” Barberena notes.

This past Thursday, October 5, a priest — Álvaro Toledo — was arrested hours after he sounded the alarm about the arrests of multiple priests from the diocese of Estelí, which is headed by Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who has been imprisoned since August of 2022. Father Toledo was also taken to prison, after being dragged from his residence in the city of Ocotal.

“Our diocese is running out of priests — we don’t have priests, we ask our Good Shepherd for abundant vocations and for them to be placed in their parishes,” Toledo said last week during mass. He reminded his parish that six priests from his diocese had been arrested for political reasons. Furthermore, just days ago, there was a rumor that he had also been arrested… a rumor that has now become reality. “The truth is that we already know that [the state] can grab us at any moment, but we have peace and a clear conscience.”

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