|Roman Catholic priests and lay leaders, and a Protestant pastor were included in a group of political prisoners sent from Nicaragua to the United States this week.
The Nicaraguan government announced that 222 prisoners had been removed from prison and put on flights to the United States on the morning of 9 February. Family members of the deported political prisoners were reportedly not informed in advance of the move. Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega subsequently declared that all 222 of those released are no longer Nicaraguans and have been stripped of their citizenship.
According to an official list released by the government, included in the group were Father Ramiro Tijerino, Father Sadiel Eugarrios, Father Raúl González, Father José Luis Díaz, seminarians Darvin Leiva and Melkin Sequeira, and cameraman Sergio Cárdenas, who were detained in August 2022 after Nicaraguan security forces stormed the Diocese of Matagalpa curia where the seven men had been forcibly confined along with Bishop Rolando Álvarez Lagos and four others for 15 days. The men had been found guilty of conspiracy against the state in January 2023 and were awaiting sentencing.
Bishop Álvarez Lagos was not among those listed by the government and CSW received reports that he had refused to leave Nicaragua, despite pressure on him by the government to do so. President Ortega later announced that the bishop has been transferred from house arrest to La Modelo Tipitapa prison.
Two other priests, Father Oscar Danilo Benavidez Dávila and Father Enrique Martínez Gamboa were listed among the deported prisoners. Father Oscar Danilo Benavidez Dávila was found guilty of the crimes of conspiracy, undermining national integrity, and the propagation of fake news on 16 January and was sentenced to a cumulative eight years in prison. Father Martínez Gamboa was violently detained on 13 October 2022, accused of damaging the integrity of the nation and propagation of fake news. and has been held since then in El Chipote Prison.
Protestant Pastor Wilber Alberto Pérez was also listed as among the group sent to the US. Pastor Pérez was arbitrarily detained on 15 December 2020 for promoting the ‘Christmas without Political Prisoners’ campaign. He was falsely convicted of selling illegal drugs. In March 2021, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison and, according to CSW sources, was held in solitary confinement in a ‘punishment cell’ with no natural light.
Two additional Roman Catholic priests, Father Manuel Salvador García and Father Leonardo Urbina Rodríguez, did not appear on the list released by the Nicaraguan government and apparently remain imprisoned in Nicaragua.
CSW’s Head of Advocacy Anna Lee Stangl said: ‘We welcome the good news of the release of 222 men and women who never should have been imprisoned in the first place. CSW appreciates the work of the US to open a legal and safe channel for all of them to leave Nicaragua, however, we note that the choice reportedly offered to these individuals by the Nicaraguan government of remaining in prison in inhumane conditions or going into forced exile is one no one should ever be forced to make. Furthermore, President Ortega’s declaration that those who were flown to the US this week have been stripped of their citizenship contravenes international law. We urge the international community to hold the Nicaraguan government to account for its continued efforts to eliminate independent civil society and critical voices and its attacks on fundamental human rights including freedom or religion or belief and not to forget those who remain political prisoners in Nicaragua including Bishop Rolando Álvarez Lagos.’