International anger grows as Nicaragua’s Ortega rounds up rivals

MANAGUA (AFP) – With five opposition presidential challengers now in detention, Nicaragua’s long-serving leader Daniel Ortega is clearing domestic obstacles to a fourth successive term but lining up considerable international resistance.

Since early June and with five months to go to presidential elections, pro-government security and paramilitary forces have arrested 19 people, including opposition figures, journalists, businessmen and a banker.

All face charges of “inciting foreign interference” under a new law initiated by Ortega’s government and approved by the legislature in December to defend Nicaragua’s sovereignty. The law has been widely criticised as means of freezing out challengers and silencing opponents.

“These are crimes related to the leadership and heading of coups d’états,” Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada said in an interview with the Telesur network.

They are “activities related to terrorism, and undermining the independence and sovereignty of the Nicaraguan state”, he said.

At a session of the United Nation’s (UN) Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday, 59 nations issued a statement saying they were “deeply concerned that recently enacted laws unduly restrict political participation, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association” in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega. PHOTO: AP

They expressed particular concern about “the arbitrary dissolution of political parties and the criminal proceedings against multiple presidential contenders and dissidents”, and called for their immediate release.

Moncada however said that those detained “are not presidential candidates, they are heads of non-governmental organisations (NGO)” financed by the United States (US) government and the European Union (EU) with funds “destined precisely to destabilise the country”.

UN Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet urged the council on Tuesday to urgently consider “all measures within its power” to protect human rights in Nicaragua and hold the government to account “for the serious violations committed since April 2018”.

Rallies demanding the resignation of both Ortega, leader of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), and his wife Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua’s deputy president, broke out in 2018. Protesters denounced a descent into dictatorship, nepotism and corruption.

A violent clampdown claimed 328 lives, according to rights bodies, while hundreds were imprisoned and about 100,000 Nicaraguans fled into exile.

Bachelet noted a “worrying and accelerating deterioration of the human rights situation” which she said made it unlikely Nicaraguans will have free and fair elections on November 7.

Ortega, 75, is widely expected to stand, though he has not said so.

Opponents, said Bachelet, were being rounded up on “ambiguous criminal offences and without sufficient evidence”.

And under a recent reform of the criminal code, many were being held for months without trial.