Despite being surrounded by her family, Ruth Matute Valdivia isn’t completely happy. It’s true that she’s exchanged the hostile environment of the Prison Hospital in La Esperanza jail for the welcoming climate of her home in Monimbo, Masaya; however, she still doesn’t feel free. “This is a temporary arrangement. I won’t be free until I receive my letter of release,” she expressed with a certain degree of hope.
Ruth Matute is one of the hundred men and women political prisoners previously incarcerated in the La Esperanza prison, the jail cells of the El Chipote interrogation jail or the El Modelo men’s penitentiary who were allowed to return home this Wednesday after receiving the “benefit” of house arrest and family custody arrangements, in release orders issued by the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.
In contrast to the rest of the political prisoners who left El Modelo early Wednesday morning in minibuses and pickup trucks, Ruth signed her order for release in the Carlos Roberto Huembes hospital belonging to the National Police. She’s been in this hospital center since the beginning of January, recovering from a heart operation to replace the pacemaker she uses.
“A representative of the prison system came to the hospital and told me to get my things together because they were taking me home. I was surprised. They explained that they had the order, and that I needed to sign some papers. I also marked them with my fingerprints. They later told me that I must report monthly to the court, and then they came to take me home,” Ruth Matute told us.
Back in Monimbo, she was received by her mother-in-law, who signed the proof of arrival that the penitentiary system authorities gave her. Everything was photographed and filmed by the public officials. Upon entering her house, Ruth received another surprise: a hug from Danny Garcia, her husband, who like her had also been taken home and assigned the status of house arrest. Together with their uncle, Lazaro Garcia, both are accused by the dictatorship of “terrorism” and other crimes.
“I’m still at risk, all of us who were let out are at risk, because we’re still not free. It’s kind of like, “I’ll leave you here, but at the same time I own your freedom.” They explained to my mother-in-law that she has to accompany me once a month to sign in at the courtroom, which means that my case is open and they’re assigning me to house arrest,” the political prisoner affirmed.
What do house arrest and family custody arrangements imply?
Daniel Esquivel, a member of the Committee for the Liberation of the Political Prisoners, confirmed to Confidencial that none of the detained were given a letter of release, nor did they receive a copy of the documents they signed at the prison, nor of the one they signed upon being released into the custody of their family members.
The prison authorities informed most of the political prisoners that their release from prison was being granted to them under the policy of family custodial arrangements. This system establishes a period at home leading up to a prisoner’s definitive release, with the objective of strengthening the prisoner’s relations with his nuclear family and preparing them to renew their social life with an eye towards the future.
“The policy of family custody arrangements doesn’t obligate them to periodically present themselves to sign in at the court, and it also doesn’t limit their movements within the country. Normally, for the years that you’re going to be detained, you’re going to live at home in the company of your family; in the case of these prisoners there’ll certainly be travel restrictions as well,” Esquivel explained.
When a prisoner receives the benefits of house arrest, a family member or institution must commit themself to being responsible for the prisoner. In the same way, they must visit the court assigned to them monthly. There’s generally an order to restrict them from leaving the country; they have to get a job or enroll in an educational program; and they’re forbidden to consume alcohol, bear arms and drive.
In a communique published on Wednesday night, the Prisoner’s Committee declared that the government hadn’t freed their family members, only changed their restrictive regime to house arrest and family custody. The Committee for the Liberation of the Political Prisoners demanded the absolute release of all the over 700 political prisoners and condemned the fact that the regime didn’t release any information to the public prior to the return of these citizens.
Almost nine hours after transferring the political prisoners to their homes, the government published a list of one hundred people who received what they call a change of detention conditions. Up to the moment, the Committee’s preliminary information has only confirmed 79 who were beneficiaries of the house arrest status. They’re still waiting to corroborate 17 names on the list, and the other four weren’t on the list they released.
The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights posted on their Twitter account that they’re watching carefully the events occurring in Nicaragua, but that the information given out up until now hasn’t allowed them to determine the legal status of the incarcerated protestors who were let out, nor to confirm the exact number released from jail.
“In this context, the IACHR asks the Nicaraguan government to clarify both aspects, based on their compliance with the international obligations with regard to human rights, as well as with the recommendations made by the IACHR in the context of the crisis,” the international organization posted.
Leaving the La Esperanza women’s prison
Brenda Munoz confessed that she was scared when an official of the “La Esperanza” women’s prisons told her to get her things together because she was leaving the cell where she was being held. Munoz, originally from the town of Diria near Granada, is accused of theft, organized crime and other offenses.
“Later, a lieutenant told me: ‘Get your things, you’re leaving.’ I didn’t know whether to believe him or not, because ideally if we’re getting out, well, it should be all of 26 of us. They told me that if I wanted, I could take the mattress or I could leave it, but they were rushing me,” Munoz recounted.
Upon leaving her cell, she spoke with another lieutenant. This official congratulated her, told her to be careful on the street and that upon leaving she should attend all her check-ups and lab tests so that the polycystic disease she’s suffering from didn’t cause her any worse problems.
Munoz waited in “La Esperanza” until 2 pm. Then, together with nine others she was taken to the men’s prison known as La Modelo where they confirmed that she’d be getting out of prison the next day, although without specifying what statute had triggered her release.
“All this was on Tuesday. In La Modelo they gave us dinner. It seemed strange to us that they offered us pre-packaged food. No one ate, we didn’t trust them. Later, they took us to the cell where we were going to sleep, but in the end, we didn’t sleep at all. We stayed there making little handicrafts that we exchanged as remembrances,” the political prisoner related.
At eleven that night, the penitentiary officials led them to another room where they were shown some papers. Apparently, these were their “release papers”. The women signed, returned to their cell and continued with their handiwork.
“At four in the morning, they called us to shower. Later they brought our breakfast but no one ate it. Then they lined us up to sign again. They didn’t tell us the conditions of our release; I only managed to read that it was something about family custody arrangements. Later, we were taken to another large gallery where we joined the other male prisoners and we saw the lines of vans and masses of officials,” Munoz stated.
She boarded the van to her yearned-for town of Diria, together with other political prisoners from Masaya and Granada. During the trip, an official confirmed that they were leaving jail under the family custody arrangement, meaning that they could work and lead a normal life.
“They also told us that we didn’t have the right to receive out letters of release, that these were supposedly in process. During the trip, they repeated to us that we should reflect; that we were adults who now knew what it was like to be behind bars; that we shouldn’t let ourselves get taken in by those who are going to occupy high places later on, because they wouldn’t even remember us. It was just a way to stir up trouble. We responded that we were innocent, and we demanded the freedom of the other political prisoners,” she continued.
In Diria, Brenda Munoz was received by her aunt, who signed the official’s proof of arrival. As with Ruth Matute, they took pictures and videos, and then left the area.
“I’m happy because I’m with my children: the two little ones and a bigger child that I haven’t seen. The people here all fell apart with the emotion. But I’m also afraid, because those who came to accuse us at the hearings are not going to be happy that we’ve been freed. I feel that I’m at risk,” she concluded.
Leaving El Modelo, the men’s prison
Danilo Alvarado and Danny Garcia, both natives of Masaya, didn’t have time to say goodbye to their cellmates. Everything happened very fast; although the rumor had been going around that a hundred of the imprisoned were going to be moved out of their cells, their distrust of the prison authorities made them doubt any “good intentions”.
The political prisoners noted that a number of minibuses had arrived at the prison at 3 am on Wednesday, February 27. “We had proposed that no one should be allowed to leave in the wee hours, because it represented a danger. Our greatest fear was to be taken to the maximum security gallery 300, where they’re holding leaders such as Edwin Carcache, Cristhian Fajardo and Miguel Mora,” Garcia said.
The night before they left the prison, some of the political prisoners from Gallery 300 yelled that on Wednesday morning a hundred prisoners would be leaving. The majority considered this a false rumor, since up until that moment they felt that Ortega hadn’t ceded on anything.
After the arrival of the minibuses, an official from the penitentiary system arrived with list in hand, and began to call out one by one the political prisoners whose names he was reading off. He told them that they were going free, and that’s why he was taking them out. Astonished by the news, the majority didn’t get the opportunity to say goodbye to the rest.
“At that moment, the official told us that we were going free. We all came out: those from Esteli, from Managua, from Masaya and Carazo – they carried a list. The women were brought from La Esperanza to El Modelo. When we got to the hall, we saw them there with some letters. There were some from the prison gallery 300, from the 161, and the 162. We signed without having a chance to read them. They lined us up according to where each one lived; they loaded us into the vehicles, and while we were on our way, the official told us that we weren’t free, but were being put under house arrest. We hadn’t been liberated, the legal process would continue, and we should avoid going out and exposing ourselves,” Garcia recounted.
Upon arriving home, he was received by his mother. He felt happy to see his children, although later he felt a mix of emotions when he recalled his cellmates, who he hadn’t managed to say goodbye to as he would have liked.
Danny Garcia affirms that he managed to develop strong friendships with people who share the same sense of struggle. Leaving them behind in prison pained him, since ideally it would have been “we’re all leaving”. These five months [the government] left us with our hands up, they completely wiped us out [our family business],” he added.
Despite being at home with his wife, his children and other family members, Garcia explains that he doesn’t feel safe. Nevertheless, he won’t leave his home because “I’m not going to give them what they want. I’m in my place, no one should own anyone else.”
“The feeling among the prisoners is the same. They continue strong and united, today more than ever. We all believe that the primary thing is the democratization of the country. That’s the most important thing, so we can manage to engender a truly peaceful society,” Garcia declared.