Five more opposition leaders held as Nicaraguan president continues crackdown

Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega speaks next to first lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo (Alfredo Ziuniga/AP) (AP)
7:12am, Mon 14 Jun 2021
CBAD8A00-D2B9-4E0E-ADDF-D0366C357A34 Created with sketchtool. E9A4AA46-7DC3-48B8-9CE2-D75274FB8967 Created with sketchtool. 65CCAE04-4748-4D0F-8696-A91D8EB3E7DC Created with sketchtool.

The government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega arrested five opposition leaders during a major weekend round-up, in what appears to be widespread detentions of anyone who might challenge his rule.

The four arrests on Sunday and one on Saturday suggest Mr Ortega has moved beyond arresting potential rival candidates in the November 7 elections, and has begun arresting any prominent member of the opposition.

The arrests bring to 12 the number of opponents detained since June 2.

“It’s not just potential candidates any more, it’s political leaders,” former general and Sandinista dissident Hugo Torres said before he himself was arrested on Sunday.

“This is not a transition to dictatorship, it is a dictatorship in every way.”

On Sunday, police also arrested prominent ex-Sandinista dissident Dora Maria Tellez, another opposition leader, Ana Margarita Vijil, and Suyen Barahona, leader of the political movement Unamos.

Ms Tellez’s arrest is a major step: she was a leading Sandinista militant who led an assault on the National Palace in 1978, taking hostage the congress of dictator Anastasio Somoza in exchange for the release of Sandinista prisoners.

Following Somoza’s overthrow, Ms Tellez served as health minister in the first Sandinista government which ruled from 1979 to 1990.

Like many former guerrillas, she later split with Mr Ortega.

On Saturday, police arrested Tamara Davila, who was active in Unamos, which was formed by former Sandinistas angered by Mr Ortega’s autocratic ways, nepotism and perpetual re-elections.

Police said they arrested Ms Davila on charges related to a recently enacted law that classifies as treason any support for sanctions against officials in the Ortega regime; the US has slapped sanctions on dozens of officials.

Ms Davila is also a central figure in the opposition coalition Blue and White National Unity, which was formed following Mr Ortega’s repression of mass protests in 2018.

Under a law passed in December, Mr Ortega’s government has the power to unilaterally declare citizens “terrorists” or coup-mongers, classify them as “traitors to the homeland” and ban them from running as candidates.

The law punishes those “who lead or finance a coup … encourage foreign interference, ask for military intervention … propose or plan economic blockades, applaud and champion the imposition of sanctions against Nicaragua or its citizens.”

Those accused “will be traitors to the homeland, and for that reason may not run for public office.” Treason is punishable by prison terms of up to 15 years.

Nicaraguan opposition activist Felix Maradiaga (Alfredo Zuniga/AP) (AP)

Mr Ortega has already arrested four potential opposition candidates who might have challenged his bid for a fourth consecutive term, and now many Nicaragua opposition leaders fear it is only a matter of time until police come for them, too.

Mr Torres said he has seen drones flying around his home in recent days, of the type used at Ms Tellez’s house.

“This interview may be the last one I give,” Mr Torres said.

“I am here, waiting for them to come for me.”

Hours later, police barged into Mr Torres’ home and arrested him.

Nicaragua’s National Police arrested the four opposition pre-candidates earlier this month.

On June 8, they arrested pre-candidate Felix Maradiaga, a pre-candidate for the opposition coalition Blue and White National Unity, and Sebastian Chamorro, a former director of the opposition coalition Civic Alliance.

The previous week authorities detained Cristiana Chamorro, a cousin of Juan Sebastian Chamorro, and Arturo Cruz Sequeira, a former ambassador to the United States.

Mr Ortega initially led Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990 following the Sandinista revolution that ousted Mr Somoza.

He returned to the presidency in 2007 after three failed election attempts, and he won reelection in 2011.

He then sidestepped term limits to get himself reelected in 2016, and packed courts and government agencies with allies.

The Sandinista party controls the courts and the legislature, and has stifled universities and the Roman Catholic church.

Mr Torres said Ortega has now instituted a more suffocating dictatorship than Mr Somoza, who faced opposition from the within the church, intellectual circles and universities.

“I think Ortega has outdone Somoza,” said Mr Torres.

“He has subordinated all the power to himself as Somoza never could.

“He has a bigger repressive apparatus than Somoza ever had.”

Julie Chung, the US State Department’s acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, said via Twitter that Mr 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.”

Sign up to our newsletter