‘This is huge’: Nicaragua frees 222 political prisoners and flies them to US
published on Febuary 9 in the Guardian, by Tom Phillips and Chris Stein
Daughter of former foreign minister Francisco Aguirre-Sacasa says he is among detainees released, adding: ‘Everybody is on the plane’
More than 200 prisoners jailed by Nicaragua’s authoritarian regime during a ferocious two-year political crackdown have been freed and flown to the United States.
“This is huge,” Georgiana Aguirre-Sacasa, the daughter of one of the prisoners – the elderly former foreign minister Francisco Aguirre-Sacasa – said on Thursday morning as she digested the news of her father’s release.
“This has been a very long slog for us and I just can’t believe it,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion as she spoke.
“I woke up at 5am to all of this. I cannot believe that he is on a flight to Dulles [airport in Washington DC] right now. I cannot believe it … It has been 19 months,” she said of her father who was arrested and jailed in July 2021.
Aguirre-Sacasa said the released Nicaraguan prisoners included key members of Nicaragua’s political opposition such as the former presidential candidates Cristiana Chamorro and Arturo Cruz. Another on the plane was the opposition activist Félix Maradiaga, who was detained in June 2021 in the lead-up to Nicaragua’s presidential elections which President Daniel Ortega won, amid widespread claims the vote had been rigged. The 25-year-old former student leader Lesther Alemán, who famously confronted Ortega during a failed 2018 revolt against his regime, was also among the released prisoners.
“Everybody is on the plane … all of them,” Aguirre-Sacasa said as she raced from Oakland to Washington to pick up her freed father.
“It is a massive freeing” of prisoners, the dissident former ambassador Arturo McFields told the Associated Press on Thursday morning.
McFields, who broke with Nicaragua’s “dictatorial” president last March, said the US state department had confirmed 222 prisoners were sent to Washington by plane earlier in the day.
Nicaragua’s crackdown began in June 2021 as Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, moved to obliterate any challenge to their Sandinista government before the November presidential election. Over the following months scores of opponents were thrown in jail before Ortega – a former revolutionary icon who has been in power since 2007 – won another five-year term in an election the US president, Joe Biden, claimed had been “rigged”.
That crackdown came after another major offensive against government opponents following a 2018 uprising against Ortega that saw hundreds killed and thousands injured. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans fled abroad in the wake of that clampdown, with many prominent politicians, religious leaders, activists and artists seeking shelter in other countries.
In an interview late last year the celebrated Nicaraguan author Gioconda Belli, who lives in exile in Madrid, voiced despair over her country’s “Orwellian” authoritarian tack.
“I feel very desolate about what is happening,” she said, amid reports the political prisoners were being deprived of food and tortured in Nicaraguan jails. “Some of them look really haggard,” Belli added, vowing to keep speaking out against Ortega’s dictatorship.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, called the release “a constructive step towards addressing human rights abuses” in Nicaragua and “the product of concerted American diplomacy”. The move “opens the door to further dialogue between the United States and Nicaragua”, added Blinken, who said the US was providing medical and legal support to the former prisoners “to ease their arrival”.
At Dulles international airport outside Washington DC, dozens of relatives and Nicaraguan activists waited for the released prisoners, many waving the country’s flag and one carrying a portrait of Jesus Christ.
After the charter flight from Managua landed at the airport, most of the former detainees were taken to a nearby hotel, but around 15 of them were taken to hospital, according to a state department official.
After landing in the US one of the released prisoners, the economist and politician Juan Sebastián Chamorro, said he planned to see his wife and daughter “for the first time in a year and a half” and eat a “good hamburger with fries”.
“It’s been a very traumatic situation as you can imagine,” added Chamorro, 52, who was seized at his home in June 2021 and later sentenced to 13 years in jail for allegedly conspiring to undermine the integrity of the Nicaraguan state.
Ariana Gutiérrez voiced incredulity and joy as she waited for her mother, the human rights activist Evelyn Pinto, who was arrested in November 2021, to arrive. “It’s surreal. It’s very exciting. It’s something that I can’t believe,” she said. “I’m just gonna give her the biggest hug ever. Just tell her how much I love her and just welcome her here.”
Nicaragua’s government made no immediate comment on its decision but state-controlled media outlets carried remarks from a magistrate who said the prisoners had been deported in order to protect national security, public order and peace.
“The deportees were declared traitors to the motherland,” Octavio Rothschuh Andino told a court in Managua, according to the Sandinista mouthpiece El 19 Digital.