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Nicaragua has freed 222 political prisoners and sent them to the U.S.

A man holds a Nicaraguan flag in favor of peace in Nicaragua.
Inti Ocon
AFP via Getty Images
A man holds a Nicaraguan flag in favor of peace in Nicaragua.

The government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has released 222 political prisoners and put them on a flight to Washington, D.C., officials in both countries said Thursday.

At Washington's Dulles International Airport, a group of about 20 relatives and friends of the former prisoners waited holding Nicaraguan flags with a mixture of excitement and disbelief.

Ariana Gutierrez Pinto, the daughter of Evelyn Pinto, said this proves that one should never lose faith.

"Freedom will always come and justice will always come," she said.

The freed prisoners were put on an early morning flight and arrived in Washington arrived around midday Thursday.

Speaking on Nicaraguan state TV in the morning, a judge said the government had decided to "deport" the prisoners in order to "protect peace and national security." He said they had been declared traitors and can never again serve in public office.

The country's National Assembly held an extraordinary session to pass a new law that seeks to strip those 222 prisoners of their Nicaraguan citizenship.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said Nicaragua made the decision "unilaterally," but that the United States had "facilitated the transportation" and the political prisoners would be admitted into the United States for "humanitarian reasons."

Arturo McFields, a Nicaraguan diplomat who publicly broke ranks with the Ortega regime, said this was a "bittersweet moment." (Not one of the released prisoners himself, McFields was speaking by phone with NPR about the news.)

"In part we are happy, we are celebrating, but on the other hand, they are not really free," he said. "The political prisoners cannot go back to their homes, cannot go and have a political life, a civil life, study, work, express themselves freely. That does not exist in Nicaragua."

Ever since anti-government protests erupted in Nicaragua in 2018, President Ortega has unleashed violent repression. He has consolidated his power, squashed popular protests, thrown his political opponents in prison and hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans have fled.

Lawyers and family members of the prisoners say they were kept in horrific conditions. Some had spent many years in jail, others were arrested in the run-up to Nicaragua's 2021 presidential elections.

The government publisheda list of all 222 prisoners who were released. They are clergy, youth activists, journalists and members of the opposition, including Félix Maradiaga and Cristiana María Chamorro Barrios, who were both candidates who challenged Ortega in the election.

One of them is a U.S. citizen, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, without naming the freed prisoners.

This release of prisoners comes as a surprise. Human rights group say that Nicaragua was holding 245 political prisoners, most of them have now been released. Notably, Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who was jailed for criticizing the regime, is not listed among those released.

Sandinista leader Ortega, who first governed Nicaragua in the 1980s following the country's bloody civil war, returned to power in 2007. His rule has become increasingly authoritarian with a crackdown on all protests, with opposition figures jailed and critical voices in the media silenced or forced into exile.

The election in November 2021 was condemned as a sham by Washington, the European Union and international human rights organizations. Ortega governs with his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, and a tight-knit group of trusted figures in the police, the military and parliament.

NPR's Eyder Peralta reported from Mexico City; NPR's Tara Neill from Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Tara Neill
Tara Neill is the Deputy international Editor and also covers Africa and Latin America on the International desk.