WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that 222 people who many people think are political prisoners of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government flew to Washington on Thursday.
Blinken said that the prisoners were locked up because they were using their basic rights, and that they had been there for a long time without reason.
“Nicaragua’s decision to release these people, one of whom is a U.S. citizen, is a good step toward fixing human rights abuses in the country, and it opens the door to more talks between the U.S. and Nicaragua about other problems,” Blinken said.
He said that there were political and business leaders, journalists, people from civil society, and students on the plane. “Concerted American diplomacy,” Blinken said, was to thank.
A senior Biden administration official had said earlier, on the condition of anonymity, that the Nicaraguan government decided “on its own” to let them go.
Ortega has said that his opponents who are in jail and other people were behind the street protests in 2018 that he says were part of a plan to get rid of him. Since the Nicaraguan government violently put down protests against the government, tens of thousands of people have left the country.
The last time the Nicaraguan opposition counted, there were 245 “political prisoners.” It wasn’t clear right away who wasn’t let go.
The U.S. official said that the freed prisoners will be allowed to stay in the U.S. for two years for humanitarian reasons. The official said that everyone who left Nicaragua did so on their own and will get medical and legal help when they get to the United States.
A Nicaraguan judge read a statement that said the 222 prisoners had been “deported.”
A judge on the Managua Appeals court, Octavio Rothschuh, said that the prisoners were sent away because of an order from Wednesday that called them “traitors to the country.” He said they were sent away because they did things that hurt Nicaragua’s freedom and independence.
Later on Thursday, Nicaragua’s Congress voted unanimously for a change to the country’s constitution that makes it possible for “traitors” to lose their citizenship. It will need a second vote at the end of this year’s legislative session.
Wilma Nuez, president of the Nicaragua Center for Human Rights, said in a statement that while the prisoners’ release was welcome, “deportation is a legal term for foreigners who commit crimes in a country. They want to call exile “deportation,” which is completely arbitrary and against international human rights laws.
Arturo McFields, who used to be Nicaragua’s ambassador to the Organization of American States, was happy about the news, which he said was confirmed by the U.S. State Department.
“It’s a huge number of prisoners being set free,” McFields said. He said that the pressure was kept up by the families of the prisoners.
Felix Maradiaga’s wife, Berta Valle, said that she heard from the State Department that her husband was on the plane.
U.S. officials say that Cristiana Chamorro was also on the flight. Before she was arrested in 2021, Chamorro was one of the most popular candidates for president. She was given an eight-year prison sentence in March of last year. She is the daughter of former President Violeta Chamorro. She was found guilty of laundering money through her mother’s non-government organization because Ortega was going after NGOs that got money from other countries. She was being kept in her home.
Arturo Cruz and Juan Sebastian Chamorro, who had also run for president in the past, were also on the flight, U.S. officials said.
Ortega went after his political rivals harder at the beginning of 2021. He wanted to clear the field before the presidential election in November of that year. Seven people who might have run for president were arrested by security forces, and Ortega won a fourth term in elections that the U.S. and other countries called a farce.
Several opposition leaders, including former high-ranking members of the ruling Sandinista movement and former candidates for president, were sent to prison by Nicaraguan judges for “conspiring to undermine the integrity of the country.”
Given how bad El Chipote prison and others are known to be, and how old some of the opposition leaders are, family members feared that the sentences could amount to death sentences.
Hugo Torres, a former Sandinista guerrilla leader who once led a raid that helped free rebel Ortega from prison, died while waiting to be tried. He was 73.
This week, Nicaraguan judges also put five Catholic priests in jail for plotting and spreading false information. It wasn’t clear right away if any of them were among those who were set free.