Nicaragua political prisoner release: After 545 days, Holmann sees the light


Juan Lorenzo Holmann Chamorro was sleeping in Nicaragua’s notorious El Chipote prison this week when the guards showed up. The publisher of the newspaper was locked up for 545 days, a political prisoner in perhaps the most oppressive country in the Western Hemisphere. Now the guard was ordering him to get up. Put on civilian clothes, he said.

Holmann, 56, wears a pair of jeans his wife recently bought him. He was led to a line of buses packed with prisoners. Vehicles crept through the dark streets of Managua, and Holmann wondered where he was going. To another prison? Another “experiment”?

His bus then turned right, onto a road leading into Managua’s Augusto C. Sandino International Airport. Holmann and 221 others—nearly all of the dissidents imprisoned in Nicaragua—were released on condition that they leave the country. They boarded a flight chartered by the US government; Within hours, they had landed at Dulles International Airport – who benefited from a surprise mass drop by the authoritarian Daniel Ortega government and a covert operation by the Biden administration to pick them up and take them away. they enter.

“I don’t know if it’s a dream or reality,” a thin man Holmann told reporters.

Nicaragua freed more than 200 political prisoners, sent to the US

Thursday’s release of prisoners brought a rare burst of joy to Nicaragua’s besieged pro-democracy forces. But for all the laughter and cheers of happiness as families reunite to hug each other, it also offers new insights into just how draconian the Central American country has become.

Today, Nicaraguans can be arrested simply for waving the national flag, a symbol accepted by protesters. The government has shut down independent newspapers and TV and radio news programs. It closed or expelled some 3,000 NGOs, from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity to smile surgery, helping patients with cleft lip or cleft palate. Security forces intercepted motorists and asked their mobile phones to check their social media activity.

On Friday, the government sentenced outspoken Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa to 26 years in prison on charges of undermining national sovereignty. He turned down an offer to live in exile with Holmann and the others.

“The country is on track to become the Western Hemisphere’s counterweight to North Korea,” said Juan Pappier, acting deputy regional director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch.

The impact extends beyond the country of 6.8 million people. Nicaraguans flee in record numbers, fueled by poor economic conditions and the rigidity of the police state. More than 164,000 Nicaraguans were detained at the US border in fiscal year 2022, a threefold increase from a year earlier.

Holmann’s case is symbolic of Ortega’s intensifying crackdown in recent years. Holmann runs La Prensa, an opposition newspaper run by the Chamorro family. he was arrested in August 2021 and was charged with money laundering, a charge he denies. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Nicaragua’s Ortega is strangling La Prensa, one of Latin America’s most storied newspapers

Scores of opposing characters – candidates, student activisthuman rights defenders — were detained in preparation for the November 2021 presidential election. With the field cleared, Ortega easily won a fourth consecutive presidential term.

Prison conditions under a one-time emancipation leader can be horrendous. Holmann and the others detained at El Chipote were not allowed to use books, newspapers, paper or pens — “not even the Bible,” he said. To keep his mind sharp, he read and re-read the nutrition labels on items the guards left in his cell.

He prayed. Much. “God, you are my captain, and my life is in your hands.”

He’s not the only member of his famous family caught up in the persecution. His cousin, Juan Sebastien Chamorro, a presidential aspirant, was arrested in June 2021 and sentenced to 13 years on charges of attempting to undermine the government. According to his wife, Victoria Cardenas, he initially slept on a concrete slab in El Chipote; The family is not allowed to send him a mattress until December.

The initial rations were scarce. Conditions eased somewhat in recent months. But Cardenas no contact with her husband for a year and a half. She fled to the United States after his arrest. Only in recent weeks, she said, have she and their 20-year-old daughter been allowed to send photos and letters from Chamorro.

“He couldn’t talk for two hours,” Cardenas speak. “He cried.”

Spying, harassment, death threats: Catholic Church in Nicaragua targeted by government

La Prensa has a history of struggling with the government. One of its early editors, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, Holmann’s uncle, harshly criticized Nicaragua’s right-wing dictator, Anastasio Somoza. Chamorro was assassinated in 1978 — sparking outrage that contributed to the fall of the dictatorship, and the victory of Ortega’s Marxist Sandinista rebels.

Even with that turbulent past, analysts say there is little precedent for the wave of repression launched by Ortega over the past two years.

Among those who have been arrested or harassed are leaders of the business community and the Catholic Church, who have been key interlocutors with the government. At the same time, the Ortega government is isolating itself on the international stage: It expels the Vatican special envoy and representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross. They then expelled the ambassador of the European Union, after a delegation from the bloc demanded the release of political prisoners.

The United States’ relationship with Ortega, a longtime rival, has become more strained with new sanctions by the Biden administration in addition to existing visa and economic restrictions. So it came as a surprise when U.S. Ambassador Kevin Sullivan received a call on January 31 from Vice President Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s wife. She told Sullivan that there is one important thing that governments can do together.

The State Department began secret negotiations over the complex logistics of receiving the prisoners. Nine days after Murillo’s call, 222 prisoners were brought to Washington. The United States has granted them a two-year humanitarian parole permit.

Ortega says he doesn’t ask for anything from Washington. He often accused the United States and Europe of supporting opponents who wanted to topple him.

“Let them have mercenaries,” he said in a televised address on Thursday.

Holmann didn’t know what was going on until he was taken to the airport. “You are being deported to the United States of America,” one official told his group. “Is that okay with you?” Everyone is given a document to confirm their agreement.

“What if I don’t sign?” Holmann asked. He was told he was going back to prison.

Holmann’s daughter Renata, 24, grew up in Nicaragua before coming to the United States to attend college. She was on the train to Washington early Thursday morning. “I got a call from my mom that my dad was on a plane to DC,” she said. “And that’s the only information she has.”

She was startled when she finally saw her father. He has lost more than 30 pounds. He appeared to have a hernia, as well as vision problems and difficulty breathing. But in the end he was free.

For Holmann, going to Washington was bittersweet. When the former prisoners left Nicaragua, the government in Managua announced that they were deprived of their political rights. Congress then moved to strip them of their citizenship. Former detainees have given up their businesses, homes, and positions in Nicaraguan politics.

Surrounded by journalists outside a hotel near Dulles on Thursday, Holmann recalled the people he had left behind – his wife, mother and siblings.

He was safe in Washington, he said. But “my family, my life is in Nicaragua.”

Sheridan reports from Mexico City. Wilson reports from Washington.


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