Nicaragua political prisoner launch: After 545 days, Holmann sees the sunshine


Juan Lorenzo Holmann Chamorro was drifting off to sleep in Nicaragua’s infamous El Chipote jail this week when the guard appeared. The newspaper writer had been locked up for 545 days, a political prisoner in maybe the Western Hemisphere’s most repressive nation. Now the guard was ordering him to rise up. Put on civilian garments, he mentioned.

Holmann, 56, slipped on a pair of denims his spouse had lately introduced him. He was led to a line of buses filling with inmates. The automobiles snaked by Managua’s darkish streets, and Holmann puzzled the place he was headed. To a unique jail? Another “trial?”

Then his bus turned proper, onto an entry highway into Managua’s Augusto C. Sandino International Airport. Holmann and 221 others — almost all of Nicaragua’s imprisoned opposition — had been being freed, on the situation they go away the nation. They boarded a U.S. government-chartered flight; inside hours, they landed at Dulles International Airport — beneficiaries of the surprising mass launch by the authoritarian authorities of Daniel Ortega and a secret Biden administration operation to choose them up and take them in.

“I don’t know if it’s a dream or it’s reality,” a gaunt Holmann advised reporters.

Nicaragua frees greater than 200 political prisoners, sends them to the U.S.

The prisoners’ liberation Thursday supplied a uncommon flash of pleasure for Nicaragua’s beleaguered pro-democracy forces. But for all of the laughter and squeals of happiness as reunited households embraced, it additionally gives new glimpses into simply how repressive the Central American nation has develop into.

Today, Nicaraguans will be arrested for merely waving the nationwide flag, an emblem adopted by protesters. The authorities has shut down impartial newspapers and TV and radio information applications. It’s closed or expelled round 3,000 nongovernmental organizations, starting from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity to Operation Smile, which helps sufferers with cleft lips or palates. Security forces cease motorists and demand their cellphones to examine social media exercise.

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On Friday, the federal government sentenced the outspoken Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa to 26 years in jail on fees of undermining nationwide sovereignty. He had declined the provide to enter exile with Holmann and the others.

“The country is on the verge of becoming the Western Hemisphere’s equivalent of North Korea,” mentioned Juan Pappier, the Americas appearing deputy director at Human Rights Watch.

The affect goes nicely past the nation of 6.8 million. Nicaraguans have been fleeing in file numbers, pushed by poor financial situations and the hardening of the police state. More than 164,000 Nicaraguans had been detained on the U.S. border in fiscal 2022, a threefold enhance from a 12 months earlier.

Holmann’s case is emblematic of Ortega’s intensified crackdown in recent times. Holmann operated La Prensa, an opposition newspaper run by the Chamorro household. He was arrested in August 2021 and accused of cash laundering, a cost he denies. He was handed a nine-year jail sentence.

Nicaragua’s Ortega is strangling La Prensa, one in every of Latin America’s most storied newspapers

Scores of opposition figures — candidates, pupil activists, human-rights defenders — had been detained within the run-up to the November 2021 presidential election. With the sector cleared, Ortega simply gained a fourth straight presidential time period.

Prison situations below the onetime liberation chief will be horrific. Holmann and others held at El Chipote weren’t allowed books, newspapers, paper or pens — “not even a Bible,” he mentioned. To hold his thoughts sharp, he would learn and reread dietary labels on objects the guards left in his cell.

He prayed. So much. “God, you are my captain, and my life is in your hands.”

He wasn’t the one member of his distinguished household caught up within the crackdown. His cousin, Juan Sebastian Chamorro, a presidential aspirant, was arrested in June 2021 and sentenced to 13 years on fees of attempting to undermine the federal government. He initially slept on a concrete slab at El Chipote, in response to his spouse, Victoria Cardenas; the household wasn’t permitted to ship him a mattress till December.

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Rations had been initially scarce. Conditions eased considerably in current months. But Cardenas had no contact along with her husband for a 12 months and a half. She’d fled to the United States after his arrest. Only in current weeks, she mentioned, had been she and their 20-year-old daughter allowed to ship Chamorro images and letters.

“He couldn’t talk for two hours,” Cardenas mentioned. “He wept.”

Spies, harassment, demise threats: the Catholic Church in Nicaragua is focused by the federal government

La Prensa has a historical past of battling the federal government. One of its first editors, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, Holmann’s uncle, fiercely criticized Nicaragua’s right-wing dictator, Anastasio Somoza. Chamorro was assassinated in 1978 — prompting outrage that contributed to the dictatorship’s downfall, and the triumph of Ortega’s Marxist Sandinista rebels.

Even with that turbulent previous, analysts say there’s little precedent for the wave of repression launched by Ortega previously two years.

Among those that have been arrested or harassed are leaders of the enterprise group and the Catholic Church, who had been as soon as key interlocutors with the federal government. At the identical time, the Ortega authorities was isolating itself internationally: It expelled the Vatican’s envoy and the consultant of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Then it kicked out the ambassador for the European Union, after a delegation from the bloc demanded freedom for the political prisoners.

U.S. relations with Ortega, lengthy adversarial, had grown extra tense with new Biden administration sanctions on high of present financial and visa restrictions. So it got here as a shock when U.S. Ambassador Kevin Sullivan acquired a name on Jan. 31 from Vice President Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s spouse. There was one thing essential, she advised Sullivan, that the governments might do collectively.

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The State Department started secret talks on the complicated logistical operation to obtain the prisoners. Nine days after Murillo’s name, the 222 prisoners had been flown to Washington. The United States has given them two-year humanitarian parole permits.

Ortega says he demanded nothing in return from Washington. He has usually accused the United States and Europe of backing opponents who need to oust him.

“Let them have their mercenaries,” he mentioned in a televised speech Thursday.

Holmann had no concept what was happening till he was pushed to the airport. “You are being deported to the United States of America,” an official advised his group. “Is that okay with you?” Everyone was handed a doc to substantiate their settlement.

“What if I don’t sign?” Holmann requested. He was advised he would return to jail.

Holmann’s daughter Renata, 24, grew up in Nicaragua earlier than coming to the United States for school. She was on a practice to Washington early Thursday. “I got a call from my mom that my father had been put on a plane to D.C.,” she mentioned. “And that was the only information that she had.”

She was startled at lastly seeing her father. He’d misplaced greater than 30 kilos. He appeared to have a hernia, in addition to imaginative and prescient issues and shortness of breath. But he was free, finally.

For Holmann, the arrival in Washington was bittersweet. As the previous prisoners departed Nicaragua, the federal government in Managua introduced it was stripping them of their political rights. The Congress then moved to remove their citizenship. The former detainees had been giving up companies, houses, their locations in Nicaraguan politics.

Surrounded by journalists exterior a lodge close to Dulles on Thursday, Holmann recalled these he left behind — his spouse, mom and siblings.

He was secure in Washington, he mentioned. But “my family, my life is in Nicaragua.”

Sheridan reported from Mexico City. Wilson reported from Washington.

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