Family members of political prisoners, as well as organizations of former political prisoners, launched for the fifth consecutive year the campaign “Christmas without Political Prisoners” to demand their freedom in a year that has seen the Ortega regime escalate persecution and harassment against their families. The number of political prisoners has swelled to 235, the highest number since 2018 when the citizen rebellion broke out and was violently repressed by paramilitaries and the dictatorship’s police force.
According to the Mechanism for the Recognition of Political Prisoners, as of November 2022, there are 235 officially recognized prisoners of conscience being held in jails and prisons of the National Penitentiary System and police stations.
However, the real number of arbitrarily incarcerated Nicaraguans may be as high as 250. Ivania Álvarez, member of the Urnas Abiertas (Open Polls) study group, explained that the difference in number is due to the fact that there are families who have not yet authorized the Mechanism to include the name of their prisoner of conscience in the list that is updated monthly because they maintain hope that their loved one will be released if they keep their case in complete anonymity.
When the Civic Rebellion of 2018 broke out, the Ortega regime prescribed death and imprisonment to those who took to the streets to protest for a change in the political system. Ortega filled the country’s jails and prisons with 674 prisoners of conscience, mostly accused of terrorism.
That year, the first “Christmas without political prisoners” campaign was launched, supported by the Nicaraguan population, the international community, and civil society organizations. It was an act of solidarity with the families who were enduring the unjust imprisonment of their loved ones.
With the controversial Amnesty Law, promoted by the Ortega regime in 2019, most of the prisoners were released, but some were not. Among those who remained imprisoned, there are 12 prisoners of conscience who this year will spend their fifth Christmas in inhumane conditions.
Later in 2019, on December 30, the Ortega regime released 91 prisoners of conscience, including Ivania Álvarez, who had been arrested as part of a group of activists who were in the city of Masaya attempting to bring water to a group of mothers of political prisoners. The police had trapped the mothers inside the San Miguel parish church when they began a hunger strike demanding the release of their loved ones and all political prisoners.
In December 2020, only three political prisoners were released. Since then, the regime has taken it upon themselves to accumulate more and more prisoners of conscience. There have been several waves of escalated repression which have even reached the Catholic Church. Eleven clergy and laypeople have been detained (two of whom have been convicted), including the bishop of the Diocese of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez, who has been under house arrest for almost four months.
2022: Worst year for political prisoners
Urnas Abierta’s Ivania Álvarez points out that Nicaragua is entering into this fifth Christmas season in one of “the most brutal and violent years in terms of political prisoners, with the new modality of persecution of the families of the prisoners. We are very clear that in the time of [the] Somoza [dictatorship], if they were looking for someone, they were looking for that person. Now when they don’t find their target, they take the person’s son or daughter, or wife, or son-in-law or brother. It shows the level of cruelty of this dictatorship.”
This fifth campaign has not achieved as much momentum as in the first years. Álvarez believes it is due to the criminalization of any activity promoting the release and rights of political prisoners in Nicaragua, as well as the fact that so many human rights defenders and family members of prisoners of conscience are in exile, and the blocking, closing and censorship of independent media.
The level of repression has escalated to such a degree that more and more family members of prisoners have had to flee Nicaragua, and those who remain are afraid to speak to the media. If they do, they often request anonymity and that their family member not be named.
Human rights specialists have signaled that Ortega has extended the torture of prisoners to family members. For example, many family members were forced to undress and do squats during their most recent visit to the Auxiliary Judicial Complex jail, El Chipote.
Human rights defender Gonzalo Carrión recalls that up until 2020, family members of prisoners of conscience spoke openly about the violations of their imprisoned loved one’s human rights. He says that back then there wasn’t “this logic of such intense terror, including against family members who demand [their loved ones’] freedom, that we’re seeing now.”
For Carrión, the fact that for five years there has been the same demand for a Christmas without prisoners of conscience only confirms that the country continues “under a repressive system that imposes a police state of terror”.
“11 Christmases with political prisoners in Nicaragua”
Allan Gómez, member of the National Union of Nicaraguan Political Prisoners (UPPN), explains that on December 1 they launched the campaign “11 Christmases with political prisoners in Nicaragua”, in recognition of the ten prisoners, considered by the Mechanism to be prisoners of conscience, who were convicted and sentenced before the civic outbreak in 2018.
The main demand, in a month dedicated to family unity, is the freedom of the 235 political prisoners. “We are at the mercy of a miracle to make what the family members are asking for actually happen and that their family members are freed,” said Gómez.
“We are united by the spirit of struggle to continue raising our collective voice to cry out for justice and unconditional freedom for all political prisoners,” reads a joint statement from UPPN and the Organization of the Victims of April (OVA).
Regularize visits to El Chipote
Álvarez recalls that in 2019 the political prisoners who were in El Chipote at that time were granted a special visit to share with their family members at Christmas. The regime has turned this same jail into a torture center where more than thirty political prisoners are being held, including presidential candidates, civil society leaders and priests.
This group of political prisoners is being held in isolation and incommunicado, without specialized medical attention and subjected to starvation rations, as reflected in how thin they are, how pale their skin is and the signs of premature aging they are showing. During more than 16 months of imprisonment, their family members have seen them on only eleven occasions; the last occurred after 84 days of anguish.
“It is very dispiriting for the prisoners that in moments of family unity, violence and torture have increased, and I don’t expect that to change,” says Álvarez. That is why she considers it necessary to exert more national and international pressure to demand the release of the prisoners of conscience, and that while they are locked up, that their visits be regularized and they are allowed a special visit during the Christmas holidays. Right now the political prisoners are “totally defenseless”, she added.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff.