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Nicaragua´s priority today: Freedom for all Political Prisoners

The 181 political prisoners in jail today symbolize national dignity and the hope for democratic change

Carlos F. Chamorro

7 de mayo 2022


My deep gratitude to Kenyon College for granting the “Leopoldo López Freedom and Democracy 2022 Award”, to those imprisoned or exiled in Nicaragua, because of the political persecution launched by the Ortega Murillo dictatorship in my country.

In the last four years, the Nicaraguan struggle for democracy and justice has faced indiscriminate state repression against ordinary citizens, political and civic leaders, human rights defenders, and especially against the families who have lost their relatives at the hands of police and government-supported paramilitaries.

All these crimes are still in impunity, and as a journalist, I have tried to document the civic resistance since the April 2018 rebellion, and the repression, maintaining my commitment to the truth, without accepting censorship or self-censorship. 

As I said in my acceptance letter on behalf of political prisoners and exiles, “you are giving me an enormous responsibility with this award, and I might not be capable of representing the plurality and diversity of the whole of Nicaraguan civic resistance, but I will do my best to speak for all those who are silent in prison”.

This prize calls the world’s attention to Nicaragua at a critical moment, when the country is in the process of consolidating a totalitarian dictatorship, and when Nicaraguans are struggling to reject the normalization of violence. 

A journalist in exile

I am a reporter, not an academic, or a political activist. My newsroom CONFIDENCIAL, an independent media outlet that I have directed for 25 years, has been assaulted and occupied twice by the Police, with no legal orders. 

First in December 2018, during an escalation of repression, after the April protests in Nicaragua. And the second time on May 20 last year during the beginning of the new wave of repression that ended up with the electoral crackdown with the detention of 40 citizens, including 7 aspiring presidential candidates of the opposition, and dozens of political and civic leaders, adding a total of 181 political prisoners in Nicaragua.

I am in exile in Costa Rica, for the second time in three years, to avoid imminent detention, preserve my freedom, and keep doing journalism. I am free, thanks to the courage and the inspiration of my wife Desirée and my children, who helped me to make this difficult decision to go into exile.  

After my house was illegally raided by the police, I faced an arrest order and an accusation for so-called money laundering, for the crime of doing investigative journalism, denouncing corruption and human rights violations. 

In this same spurious political trial, my sister Cristiana, an aspiring presidential candidate, my brother Pedro Joaquin, and my cousin Juan Lorenzo Hollmann, general manager of La Prensa, have already been condemned to penalties from 8 to 9 years in prison. 

So, like more than 100 journalists in exile, I am reporting in Nicaragua from Costa Rica, overcoming censorship through the internet and social media. Other media outlets like La Prensa newspaper and the cable channel 100% Noticias have also been occupied by the Police, but we all continue to report online. 

The problem is that we no longer have any public or independent sources, that we can quote in Nicaragua, because there has been a criminalization of freedom of expression, and all sources, whether they are public servants, lawyers, politicians, analysts, common citizens, businessmen, or religious leaders, cannot be quoted because of fear of retaliation and State reprisals.

Repression, Police State, and political prisoners

In Nicaragua, we have lived under this police state since September 2018, after the civic protests demanding free elections were massacred by police and paramilitary forces led by President Daniel Ortega and his wife, vice-president Rosario Murillo, with the complicity of the Army.

The police state is a de-facto situation, where no state of emergency has been established, but freedom of reunion, freedom of mobilization, and freedom of the press and of expression have been suppressed. 

In April 2018 a civic insurrection exploded in with no warning, against the Ortega Murillo Regime, and generated new hope for democratization with justice.

The state response was brutal repression that provoked more than 350 assassinations that are all in impunity. Thousands of wounded, several hundred political prisoners, and more than 250,000 exiles, mostly in Costa Rica, the United States, and Spain.

And although the Police State was never suspended in the next 3 years, the pro-democracy movement accepted to participate in the 2021 November 7 general elections, without having any guarantee that free and fair elections would take place.  

However, all possibilities of political competition in the elections were canceled several months in advance.

Seven aspiring presidential candidates of the opposition that represent the entire social-political spectrum of Nicaragua were taken to prison. Academic and former ambassador in the US Arturo Cruz. My cousin, Economist Juan Sebastian Chamorro. Political scientist and activist, Félix Maradiaga. My sister Cristiana Chamorro, former president of a pro-freedom of the press Foundation. The peasant leader Medardo Mairena. My colleague, the journalist Miguel Mora. A conservative politician Noel Vidaurre. 

According to the last CID Gallup poll done in October, 65% would have voted for any of the opposition candidates in prison, and only 17% for Daniel Ortega.

So, on November 7 Ortega had a self-election, with neither electoral guarantees nor political competition. The official results claimed that there was a turnout of 65% of the electorate, assigning Ortega 75% of the vote, but independent estimations demonstrate that in fact there was a very high level of abstention.

Six months later, all the aspiring presidential candidates of the opposition have been condemned to 8 to 13 years in prison for the so-called crimes of conspiracy against the national sovereignty, High Treason, or money laundering. In these illegal trials that took place in prison, the witnesses were the same police officers who spied on and kidnapped the accused, and the “evidence of the crime” was the interviews they gave to media outlets such as Confidencial or El País, or the opinions they published on social networks.

There are also other 34 political and civic leaders in prison, including former Sandinista guerrilla commanders Dora Maria Téllez, and Victor Hugo Tinoco that represent the democratic left;  center-right politicians, like Mauricio Díaz or former foreign minister Francisco Aguirre; nonpartisan activists like Violeta Granera or Roger Reyes; a new generation of student leaders like Lester Aleman and Max Jerez; Businessmen Jose Adán Aguerri and Luis Rivas; Journalist Miguel Mendoza; Human rights lawyer Maria Oviedo, and many other local activists, former political prisoners, and relatives of the families victims of repression.

Torture in prison

In the past eleven months, political prisoners detained in the infamous El Chipote prison have been subject to systematic isolation and torture. In over three hundred and thirty days of prison, their families have only been allowed to visit them seven times – this means they have received visits every forty-seven days. 

During all this time, four female political prisoners -- Dora María Téllez, Tamara Dávila, Ana Margarita Vijil, and Suyen Barahona, have been held in solitary confinement. 

Other political prisoners share six by seven feet cells, where they are not allowed to communicate with each other.

None of the political prisoners are allowed to access reading or writing materials, a bible, pen and paper, or communicate with their young children.

All of the political prisoners are receiving insufficient quantities of food and show signs of malnutrition. They have all lost between twenty and sixty pounds, causing them severe physical and mental health problems. 

Torture and punishment practices include keeping the lights on day and night, or total darkness for weeks on end. They are denied access to sunlight and fresh air, and some are forced to sleep on concrete barracks without a blanket or a sleeping pad.

Political prisoners also lack access to timely and specialized medical care, which is producing the aggravation of chronic illnesses like cardiac diseases and hypertension, eyesight problems, allergies, infections, skin diseases, and severe gum and dental diseases. 

After their last visits this past weekend, the families of prisoners have denounced what they call the “the generalized deterioration of the health of political prisoners produced by a systematic policy of torture directed at breaking down their bodies and minds.” They fear for the lives of their relatives and have sent an SOS to the people of Nicaragua and the international community. 

The death of prisoner Hugo Torres

On February 11 this year, former FSLN guerrilla commander and retired Brigadier General Hugo Torres died in police custody. Hugo Torres had spent the past eight months as a political prisoner enduring torture conditions in the El Chipote prison.

The immediate cause of Torres’ death remains unknown because the regime maintained complete silence about his worsening health condition, wrapped in the isolation that prevails in the El Chipote prison.

What we do know from the statements of other prisoners, is that the brutal conditions of his captivity provoked an irreversible deterioration in General Torres’ health. We also know that the authorities acted negligently in not granting him the timely medical attention his case required. It was only after he collapsed in his cell that he was transferred to a hospital.

A week after the tragic death of Hugo Torres that profoundly shook the country and international public opinion, Daniel Ortega finally authorized the transfer of six elderly political prisoners, whose ages range from sixty-eight to seventy-eight, from their jail cells to house arrest. 

In addition to their advanced age, all have visible health conditions that have greatly worsened during their seven to nine months of unjust imprisonment under conditions that lacked minimum respect for their human rights as prisoners. However, there are at least 10 elderly political prisoners, women and men, who remain under the same torture system. 

As a consequence of this critical situation, we demand at least three emergency measures to confront this grave human rights crisis. 

First, an immediate suspension of the jail practices that comprise isolation and torture. 

Second: the immediate transfer to house arrest of the remaining 16 political prisoners of advanced age. 

Third: The immediate suspension and nullification of the bogus trials, the release of all prisoners of conscience, and the restoration of their political rights.

National and international pressure

To recover the freedom of the 181 political prisoners, much more national and international pressure is needed – not only from the political prisoners’ families but from all the Nicaraguans and the international community.

It will require the joint efforts of university students, trade unions, and civil society organizations, as well as bishops of the Episcopal Conference – who represent the country’s moral leadership. It will also require the participation of business community, and, very crucially, of public servants, both civil and military.

More than 50 nations in the world have declared the November elections in Nicaragua illegitimate and are supporting the demand for the release of all political prisoners. 

Also, more than 60 high officers of the Ortega Murillo regime, and several state institutions and pro-government business companies have been sanctioned by the US Treasury, the UK, and Canada. 

International isolation and the condemnation by the Organization of American States and the European Union, and individual sanctions against the dictatorship's high officers, are necessary but not sufficient for the restoration of democracy. 

A dictatorship like the Ortega Murillo Regime can survive sanctions and stay in power longer, but it cannot last one week or one month without the Police State. The major challenge for both the international community and the Nicaragua pro-democracy movement is how to establish a conditionality between external pressure and the restoration of domestic freedoms.

Ortega and Murillo are only going to free all political prisoners when national and international pressure and civic resistance, combined with the internal fissures and growing cracks in the regime’s repressive and economic pillars, force them to leave power and return the country to freedom, to initiate a new democratic transition.

The exiled community

The Nicaraguan political crisis is also having a political regional implication in Central America, about the future of the Governments with authoritarian tendencies in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras and Guatemala, which are seeing themselves in the mirror of impunity of Nicaragua.

At the same time, there is a growing humanitarian crisis caused by exile and migration. Since 2018, and now aggravated in 2021-22 there is a new wave of migration south to Costa Rica and north towards the United States.
At least 120 000 Nicaraguan exiles have left for Costa Rica, and about 150,000 to the US, especially in the last eight months, and about 30,000 to other countries. The number of Nicaraguans detained at the U.S – Mexico Border has increased by five hundred percent in the last four months. Only in the month of April, fourteen Nicaraguans died crossing the Rio Bravo in their effort to arrive to the United States.  

Four a country of six million people, this new wave of migration equivalent to five percent of the population represents a true humanitarian crisis. Thousands are migrating due to political persecution, and others for the lack of opportunities in a country without a future. 

The political radicalization of a regime that recently confiscated the headquarters of the Organization of American States in Nicaragua, expelled the Pope representative, the apostolic nuncio, and cancelled the legal status of two hundred and ten non-governmental organizations, universities and civil society foundations, confirms that with Ortega and Murillo there is no route out of the profound crisis that the country has been confronting for the past four years. 

The only future that Ortega promises his partisan supporters is a dynastic family dictatorship, much like the one established by Anastasio Somoza, which was overthrown in nineteen seventy-nine, ironically, after the Organization of American States decreed to stop recognizing the Somoza regime.

Ortega and Murillo also promise their partisans an alliance with Vladimir Putin and Russia, during the Ukraine invasion, the Popular Republic of China, Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran, which can grant the regime some international impunity, but no guarantees of any political or economic sustainability.

The return of Nicaraguan exiles requires minimal guarantees of security, that can only be offered by the return to the country of international human rights organizations that have been expelled, such as the Inter American Commission for Human Rights of the Organization of American States, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

The symbol of political prisoners

In the meantime, the 181 political prisoners in jail today symbolize national dignity and the hope for democratic change. Daniel Ortega has tried to erase them from national memory and there are no photographs or videos of the prisoners, but he has not been able to produce a single confession or admission of guilt for the alleged crimes he accuses them of. 

Their conviction has not silenced the demand for their freedom. On the contrary: by punishing them, the regime is relaunching the national and international demand for their unconditional release with greater force. 

The recent approval at the United Nations Human Rights Council of a special mechanism to investigate the human rights violations that have occurred in the country since 2018, composed of an international group of three independent experts that will be appointed in the next days, marks a roadmap on the road to justice.

However, bending a totalitarian dictatorship requires the simultaneous exertion of incremental political pressure, nationally and internationally, for Ortega to suspend the torture regime in prison. That must be the first step in the irreversible path toward the release of all political prisoners and the return of exiles.  

Thank you again to Kenyon college, for granting the “Leopoldo López Freedom and Democracy 2022 Award” to Nicaraguan exiles and political prisoners, so that we may continue this struggle for liberty, which has a medium-term political horizon, and requires the unwavering support of the international community. 

As my father, the journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, assassinated in 1978 by the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza proclaimed, when we recover our freedom “Nicaragua volverá a ser República.”

* Acceptance remarks of the “Leopoldo López Freedom and Democracy 2022 Award” on behalf of Nicaraguan political prisoners and exiles at Kenyon College. Ambier Ohio. May 5th, 2022



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Carlos F. Chamorro

Carlos F. Chamorro

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Fundador y director de Confidencial y Esta Semana. Miembro del Consejo Rector de la Fundación Gabo. Ha sido Knight Fellow en la Universidad de Stanford (1997-1998) y profesor visitante en la Maestría de Periodismo de la Universidad de Berkeley, California (1998-1999). En mayo 2009, obtuvo el Premio a la Libertad de Expresión en Iberoamérica, de Casa América Cataluña (España). En octubre de 2010 recibió el Premio Maria Moors Cabot de la Escuela de Periodismo de la Universidad de Columbia en Nueva York. En 2021 obtuvo el Premio Ortega y Gasset por su trayectoria periodística.