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Nicaragua rounds up president’s critics in sweeping pre-election crackdown

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Carlos Herrera/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Carlos Herrera/Reuters

Nicaragua’s Sandinista rulers have launched an unprecedented crackdown on the country’s opposition, arresting a string of prominent critics of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, in an apparent attempt to crush any serious challenge in November’s elections.

Six opposition figures were arrested at the weekend, including revered former guerrillas who fought alongside Ortega during the campaign to topple the dictator Anastasio Somoza and went on to serve in the first Sandinista government.

The former health minister Dora María Téllez and former general Hugo Torres, as well as the former deputy foreign minister Víctor Hugo Tinoco were all arrested on Sunday. Their detention brings to 13 the number of prominent opposition figures – including four possible presidential candidates – arrested in the past two weeks.

“Ortega is terrified at the idea of elections which could end to his rule,” Téllez told the Guardian before her arrest. “They are going to remove the whole opposition from the ballet. The only names that will appear will be Daniel Ortega, Rosario Murillo and the parties which are collaborating with the Sandinistas.”

During the guerrilla war to topple Somoza, Téllez and Torres participated in some of the most audacious strikes against the dictatorship, but both later split with Ortega, 75, who they accuse of betraying the revolution.

In 1978, the two helped lead a small guerrilla unit which took over the National Palace and held 2,000 government officials hostage in a two-day standoff. The attack was seen as a key moment that indicated the Somoza regime could be overthrown.

Hugo Torres: &#x002018;That&#x002019;s how life goes: those who once held their principles high have now betrayed them.&#x002019;
Hugo Torres, who in 1974 led a Sandinista guerrilla operation that freed Daniel Ortega from imprisonment by the Somoza dictatorship, has been arrested. Photograph: Moisés Castillo/AP

Four years earlier, Torres seized the house of a Somoza minister, forcing the government to release a group of political prisoners – including Daniel Ortega.

In a video recorded before his arrest, Torres said: “Forty-six years ago I risked my life to rescue Daniel Ortega and other political prisoners from prison, but that’s how life goes: those who once held their principles high have now betrayed them.”

Speaking before his arrest, Torres told the AP: “This is not a transition to dictatorship, it is a dictatorship in every way.”

Tinoco is the leader of Unamos, a party formed by former Sandinistas disillusioned by Ortega’s nepotism, autocracy and perpetual re-election.

The opposition figures, now either held in detention or isolated under house arrest, have been detained under a controversial law passed in December, which grants the government the power to unilaterally classify citizens as “traitors to the homeland” and ban them from running as political candidates.

Related: Nicaragua police detain opposition leader and expected Ortega challenger

Treason is punishable by prison terms of up to 15 years. Some of the detainees have also been accused of crimes including money laundering and terrorism.

The crackdown began with the arrest last week of Cristiana Chamorro, who was widely seen as the leading candidate to beat Ortega in November’s election.

Riot police raided Chamorro’s home last Wednesday just moments before she was due to address a virtual press conference. Prosecutors say they are investigating allegations of money laundering at the organization she runs, the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, an NGO which for more than 20 years has provided training and support to local journalists.

Two employees of the foundation have also been arrested. About 30 local reporters have been summoned for questioning at police headquarters, and several of them have been warned that they could also face charges.

Chamorro has described the legal moves against her as a “judicial monstrosity” and said that the only aim is to block her run for the presidency.

Daniel Ortega returned to power in 2006 and has seen off all opposition since.
Daniel Ortega returned to power in 2006 and has seen off all opposition since. Photograph: Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters

Chamorro’s father was Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, a prominent newspaper editor, whose assassination in 1978 helped galvanise the uprising against Somoza. Her mother Violeta Barrios de Chamorro defeated Ortega in 1990 elections.

“This is Daniel Ortega’s vengeance against the legacy of my mother. They want to stop Nicaraguans from voting, and prevent a transition to democracy,” she said before her capture.

After Chamorro’s arrest, three other possible candidates were detained: the academic Félix Maradiaga, who was beaten by police, the economist Juan Sebastián Chamorro, who is Cristiana Chamorro’s cousin, and former ambassador to the US Arturo Cruz.

The government has dismissed claims that the opposition figures were targeted for political reasons.

“Persecution? They are persecuted by themselves, by their scandals and their crimes,” Murillo said last week. “How many of this bunch can call themselves honorable? Honour is a gift from God.”

The crackdown has prompted international condemnation. Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States, described Ortega as a “dictator” and called for a meeting on Tuesday to consider suspending Nicaragua from the regional body.

After Chamorro’s arrest, the US slapped sanctions on four Nicaraguan officials, including one of Ortega and Murillo’s daughters.

Related: Barricades draw battle lines over Nicaragua's revolutionary heritage

Julie Chung, the US state department’s acting assistant secretary for western hemisphere affairs, said on Twitter that Ortega’s “campaign of terror continues with more arbitrary arrests this weekend. OAS members must send a clear signal this week: enough repression. The region cannot stand by and wait to see who is next.”

After his defeat at the hands of Violeta Chamorro, Ortega returned to power in 2006 – partly thanks to an alliance with the Catholic church which supported his anti-abortion policies – and he has the ruled the country with Murillo ever since.

But growing accusations of cronyism and corruption erupted in 2018 with a nationwide uprising in which demonstrators took to the streets chanting “Daniel! Somoza! ¡Son la misma cosa!” – “Daniel! Somoza! They’re the same thing!”

Dora Maria Tellez.
Dora María Téllez. Photograph: Héctor Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

The uprising was brutally repressed by the national police and armed pro-government paramilitaries, leaving 300 people dead, 2,000 injured and hundreds of people arbitrarily detained and prosecuted.

Since then Ortega and Murillo have cemented their control of the electoral system by rewriting legislation and naming loyalist magistrates. The presidential couple claim that the US has financed the opposition and critical media outlets to promote a coup d’etat.

“They are gambling on staying in power through blood and fire,” Téllez told the Guardian before her arrest. “But that is a risky bet – it’s the last gamble of a dictator’s family.”

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