The endless wait for word on loved ones arrested in Nicaragua

·3-min read

Every day, family members of the 21 opposition figures rounded up in Nicaragua in the past month visit the prison where they think their loved ones are held. Every day they leave disappointed, with no contact and no news.

"Some have been (held) for 31 days and no one" has been allowed to see them, "not even the lawyers," said Martha Urcuyo, wife of detainee Pedro Chamorro.

"We hope that they are here," she told AFP on one of her regular, but fruitless, visits to El Chipote prison southwest of Managua with other spouses, parents and children of the 21 seized in house raids and nighttime arrests which began on June 2.

Chamorro, a journalist, former opposition lawmaker and son of ex-president Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, was arrested on June 25 on charges of "inciting foreign interference" and "applauding" sanctions against Nicaragua.

His was the most recent arrest in the raids that have netted five presidential candidates including his sister Cristiana Chamorro -- a favorite to beat Ortega in the November poll. She is under house arrest.

The siblings' mother had beaten Ortega in 1990, ending an 11-year spell for the ex-guerilla at Nicaragua's helm. He returned in 2007 and has twice won re-election since then.

Ortega accuses the detainees, who include critics, politicians, businessmen and former comrades, of being "criminals" seeking to overthrow him with US backing.

Under threat, several other Ortega opponents have fled the country ahead of the election in which he is widely expected to seek a fourth consecutive term, though he has not said so.

Most of the detainees face charges under a new law initiated by Ortega's government and approved by parliament in December to defend Nicaragua's "sovereignty."

The law has been widely criticized as a means of freezing out challengers and silencing opponents.

- "We know nothing' -

The international community has condemned Ortega's crackdown and called for the release of the detainees.

But neither the outcry nor fresh US sanctions against Ortega allies have stopped the parade of detainees to El Chipote pre-trial prison -- where rights groups have reported numerous instances of beatings and mistreatment in recent years.

It has been torture for loved ones as well.

"We always bring food, and then go back home with it," Urcuyo said as she approached the jail bearing a recyclable plastic shopping bag with goodies for her husband, squaring her shoulders as she walked past a line of police in riot gear.

"We come three times a day and the only thing they (the guards) take from us is water," she added.

Arlen Tinoco, the daughter of detained former foreign minister Victor Tinoco, said "we know nothing" about the fate of the prisoners.

"They have not informed us, they have not said anything. They have not allowed them (the prisoners) to see lawyers, we have zero information."

A firebrand Marxist in his younger days, Ortega and his Sandinistas toppled a corrupt autocratic regime to popular applause and seized control of the country in 1979.

But opponents have increasingly denounced a descent into dictatorship, nepotism and corruption under Ortega, who leads the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).

His vice president is also his wife, Rosario Murillo.

Last week, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet urged the UN's Human Rights Council to hold the Ortega government to account for "serious violations committed since April 2018," including the recent arrests.

Rallies demanding the resignation of Ortega and Murillo broke out that year, but a violent clampdown claimed 328 lives, according to rights bodies, while hundreds were imprisoned and some 100,000 Nicaraguans fled into exile.

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