Nicaragua releases dozens of political prisoners

Blanca MOREL
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Jesus Tefel and Olama Hurtado take a selfie with members of the Nicaraguan Civic Alliance after their release from "El Chipote" prison, where they were held for delivering water to hunger-striking mothers of political prisoners

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's government on Monday released 91 opposition prisoners held following a deadly crackdown on 2018 protests in the Central American country.

Among those released was Belgian-born student leader Amaya Coppens, her family and a local rights organization said.

The Interior Ministry said a total of 91 "opponents" had been released under what it called a "special family coexistence program".

Vice President Rosario Murillo, who is also Ortega's wife, said the move showed the government was seeking to "contribute to reconciliation" following more than a year of opposition protest against his rule.

Regime forces and pro-government militias have been blamed for more than 300 deaths since April last year, when protests against Ortega mushroomed into an uprising that was brutally suppressed.

Critics accuse Ortega, a former rebel hero who has been in power since 2007, of running a repressive dictatorship. He was most recently elected in 2016 for a mandate that would keep him in office until 2021.

Coppens was arrested in mid-November for being part of a group of volunteers trying to deliver water to hunger-striking mothers of political prisoners.

"I feel a mixture of joy to see my family and anger to see how my two brothers were attacked a few days ago," Coppens told AFP shortly after arriving at her home in the northern town of Esteli. She said her brothers had been attacked by armed groups duringa peaceful protest.

Coppens, 25 -- who has been jailed twice in the last two years for her part in anti-government protests -- said she will continue to demand "freedom, justice and democracy for Nicaragua."

- 'Good news' -

Earlier in the day, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights chief Pablo Abrao called the releases "good news for Nicaragua."

Julio Montenegro, the head of Defenders of the People, a local humanitarian organization, said Coppens and the others would be held under house arrest and had been handed over to their families.

"We're going out, we made it," Olga Valle, one of the prisoners, told reporters.

Maria Ruiz, another of the freed detainees, said: "Today we are celebrating my release from jail, even though I should never have been there, for fighting for something that is just. Long live free Nicaragua!"

The opposition Civic Alliance, behind a push to have all those arrested during the crisis released by Christmas, said 148 political prisoners were being held in Nicaraguan jails up to December 27.

"There are still brothers in the cells," the Alliance said following Monday's announcement, calling on the government to release "all political prisoners."

Jose Aguerri, the president of the country's business association, said on Twitter that the releases were due to lobbying from the Apostolic Nuncio, Stanislaw Waldemar.

In its statement announcing the releases, the Interior Ministry also credited the intercession of Pope Francis, Waldemar, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Nicaraguan state attorney's office for human rights.

The Catholic Church has played a leading role in mediating talks aimed at resolving the crisis, but Ortega walked out of negotiations in July.