MEXICO CITY -- In the middle of the night, political leaders, priests, students and activists languishing inside Nicaragua's most notorious prisons were awoken, given the clothes they had been arrested in and told to dress. Hours later, 222 of them, widely considered political prisoners, landed at a Washington-area airport, deported from their own country.
The United States government said the massive release was both a “unilateral decision” by the government of President Daniel Ortega and the result of concerted diplomatic efforts.
President Joe Biden said Thursday that the U.S. believes all political prisoners should be released.
“And whether this is a token of their demonstration that they’re ready to begin to change the human rights policies or not remains to be seen," Biden said in an interview with Telemundo Noticias. "But the fact that they were released, we’re happy to receive them and I’m glad they’re out.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it was a positive step.
“The release of these individuals, one of whom is a U.S. citizen, by the government of Nicaragua marks a constructive step towards addressing human rights abuses in the country and opens the door to further dialogue between the United States and Nicaragua regarding issues of concern,” he said.
It was a surprise move after months of intransigence by Ortega, including show trials and the sentencing of five Catholic priests earlier this week, all of whom were apparently on Thursday's flight. Ortega had not tempered his rhetoric about alleged “Yankee” interference in his country and at least publicly had not signaled that mounting U.S. sanctions against his family and inner circle were having the desired effect.
Ortega has maintained that his imprisoned opponents and others were behind 2018 street protests he claims were a plot to overthrow him. Tens of thousands have fled into exile since Nicaraguan security forces violently put down those antigovernment protests.
In a televised national address Thursday evening, Ortega denied there was any negotiation with the U.S.
He said Vice President and first lady Rosario Murillo said to him in recent days: “Why don’t we tell the ambassador to take all of these terrorists?”
“It wasn’t about negotiating anything. That has to be clear,” Ortega said. “We’re not asking that they lift the sanctions. We aren’t asking for anything in return.” Nicaragua's president said the U.S. should “take their mercenaries.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Nicaragua had identified 224 prisoners to be sent on the plane, but two of them declined. They were not identified.
Roman Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez was on a list of 39 prisoners who were not on the plane compiled by the nongovernmental group Mechanism for Recognition of Political Prisoners. Ortega said that Álvarez had refused to board the plane, saying he had to speak with the bishops. The bishop had been in house arrest, but Ortega said he was now being held in Modelo prison.
Price said those who arrived in Washington came voluntarily and would receive humanitarian parole allowing them to stay in the country for two years. They were staying at hotels under responsibility of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security and the government would work with nongovernmental organizations to help in their resettlement.
“It was the Nicaraguan government that decided to offer the opportunity to these individuals to travel the United States,” Price said. “When I say this is a product of American engagement, as you know, we have long called for the release of individuals imprisoned in Nicaragua for exercising their fundamental freedoms as a first step towards the restoration of democracy and an improved human rights climate in Nicaragua.”
Outside a hotel in Northern Virginia where the Nicaraguans were staying, Juan Sebastian Chamorro, an opposition and pre-candidate to challenge Ortega for the presidency in 2018, told reporters of the information vacuum in which the expulsions occurred.
“It was a complete surprise,” said Chamorro, a nephew of former President Violeta Chamorro. “Things were happening in the middle of the night that had never happened.” He said he was placed in a cell with some 25 other prisoners, which had never occurred before in the maximum security prison where he had virtually no contact with any other prisoners.
They were loaded onto buses and driven through the capital. They passed the court and for a moment they thought they were being taken there, but when the buses continued they saw only two options: the notorious Modelo prison near the airport or they would be put on a plane and expelled from Nicaragua.
“Personally, I thought we were going to Modelo,” he said. At the door to the plane they were asked to sign forms assuring they were going voluntarily. Chamorro, who had been arrested June 8, 2021, said that being reunited with his wife and daughter was like a dream.
Back in Nicaragua, while their plane was still in the air, a judge read a statement saying the 222 prisoners had been “deported.”
Octavio Rothschuh, a magistrate on the Managua Appeals court, said the deportation was carried out under an order issued Wednesday that declared the prisoners “traitors to the country.” He said they were deported for actions that undermined Nicaragua’s independence and sovereignty.
Later Thursday, Nicaragua’s Congress unanimously approved a constitutional change allowing “traitors” to be stripped of their nationality. It will require a second vote in the next legislative session later this year.
Wilma Nuñez, president of the Nicaragua Center for Human Rights, said in a statement that while the prisoners’ release was welcome, “deportation is a legal term that applies to foreigners who commit crimes in a country. They want to call exile a deportation, which is absolutely arbitrary and prohibited by international human rights norms.”
Berta Valle, the wife of opposition leader Felix Maradiaga, also appeared with her husband in Virginia after the plane landed.
According to U.S. officials, also among those aboard the flight were Cristiana Chamorro, who had been a leading presidential contender before her arrest in 2021. Daughter of former president Chamorro, she was sentenced last March to eight years in prison. She was convicted of money laundering through her mother’s nongovernmental organization as Ortega pursued NGOs that received foreign funding. She was being held under house arrest.
Another one-time presidential hopeful Arturo Cruz was also on the flight, U.S. officials said.
Ortega upped his pursuit of political opponents in early 2021, looking to clear the field ahead of presidential elections in November of that year. Security forces arrested seven potential presidential contenders and Ortega romped to a fourth consecutive term in elections that the U.S. and other countries termed a farce.
Nicaraguan judges sentenced several opposition leaders, including former high-level officials of the governing Sandinista movement and former presidential contenders, to prison terms for “conspiracy to undermine national integrity.”
Given the notoriously bad conditions at the infamous El Chipote prison and others, as well as the age of some of the opposition leaders, relatives had feared the terms may effectively be death sentences.
Hugo Torres, a former Sandinista guerrilla leader who once led a raid that helped free then rebel Ortega from prison, died while awaiting trial. He was 73.
Madhani reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Colleen Long in Washington and Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.