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Nicaraguan bishop who refused exile gets 26 years in prison


MEXICO CITY — Roman Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez, an outspoken critic of Nicaragua’s government, was sentenced to 26 years in prison and stripped him of his Nicaraguan citizenship Friday, the latest move by President Daniel Ortega against the Catholic church and his opponents.

A day after he refused to get on a flight to the United States with 222 other prisoners, all of the opponents to Ortega, a judge sentenced Álvarez for undermining the government, spreading false information, obstruction of functions and disobedience, according to a government statement published in official outlets.

The sentence handed down by Octavio Ernesto Rothschuh, chief magistrate of the Managua appeals court, is the longest given to any of Ortega’s opponents over the last couple years.

Álvarez was arrested in August along with several other priests and lay people. When Ortega ordered the mass release of political leaders, priests, students and activists widely considered political prisoners and had some of them put on a flight to Washington Thursday, Alvarez refused to board without being able to consult with other bishops, Ortega said.

Nicaragua’s president called Álvarez’s refusal “an absurd thing.” Álvarez, who had been held under house arrest, was then taken to the nearby Modelo prison.

Álvarez had been one of the most outspoken religious figures still in Nicaragua as Ortega intensified his repression of the opposition.

Nicaragua’s Episcopal Conference did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the sentence.

Álvarez, the bishop of Matagalpa about 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Managua, has been a key religious voice in discussions of Nicaragua’s future since 2018, when a wave of protests against Ortega’s government led to a sweeping crackdown on opponents.

“We hope there would be a series of electoral reforms, structural changes to the electoral authority — free, just and transparent elections, international observation without conditions,” Álvarez said a month after the protests broke out. “Effectively the democratization of the country.”

Last summer, the government seized several radio stations owned by the diocese. At the time, it appeared Ortega’s administration wanted to silence critical voices ahead of municipal elections.

U.S. officials had called Thursday’s massive release a positive sign, but said they did not yet see a change in the government’s policies toward dissent.

Before the sentence was announced Friday, Emily Mendrala, a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said “we see yesterday’s event as a positive step that could put the (bilateral) relationship on a more constructive trajectory.” But she added that “we still have concerns with the human rights situation and the situation with democracy in Nicaragua.”

Vilma Núñez, director of the Nicaragua Center for Human Rights, which had been supporting prisoners in their cases, called the sentence “arbitrary and last minute,” noting that it included crimes that were not part of his original conviction.

“The personal well-being and life of the Monsignor is in danger,” Núñez said, mentioning Ortega’s comments about the bishop Thursday night.

Antonio Garrastazu, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute in Washington, spoke before the sentence of the importance of Álvarez’s decision to stay in Nicaragua.

After expelling nearly all of his most vocal critics, Ortega found himself stuck with the bishop in a still heavily Catholic country.

“The Catholic Church, I think, is one of the main institutions that the Ortega regime really, really fears,” said Garrastazu. “The Catholic Church are really the ones that can actually change the hearts and minds of the people.”

Prior to the massive release of prisoners, sanctions and public criticism of Ortega had been building for months, but both United States and Nicaraguan officials say the decision to put 222 dissidents on a plane to Washington came suddenly.

The majority had been sentenced in the past couple years to lengthy prison terms. The release came together in a couple of days and the prisoners had no idea what was happening until their buses turned into Managua’s international airport.

“I think the pressure, the political pressure of the prisoners, the political prisoners became important to the Ortega regime, even for the people, the Sandinista people who were tired of abuses,” opposition leader Juan Sebastian Chamorro, who was among those released, said during a press conference Friday. “I think (Ortega) wanted to basically send the opposition outside of the country into exile.”

In Ortega’s mind, they are terrorists. Funded by foreign governments, they worked to destabilize his government after huge street protests broke out in April 2018, he maintains.

Ortega said Vice President Rosario Murillo, his wife, first came to him with the idea of expelling the prisoners.

“Rosario says to me, ‘Why don’t we tell the ambassador to take all of these terrorists,’” Ortega recounted in a rambling speech Thursday night. In a matter of days, it was done.

AP reporters Gisela Salomon in Miami and Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Spain contributed to this report.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.