It is best to avoid being a political prisoner in today’s Nicaragua: the regime of President Daniel Ortega and Vice-President Rosario Murillo treats its jailed opponents as badly or worse than the dictatorship of the Somoza family (1936–79), brought down by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).
So brutal has this treatment become that four of the regime’s political prisoners, jailed since mid-2021, have been on partial hunger strike since September 24. They are:
• Dora María Téllez, famous for her role as Comandante Dos in the FSLN’s 1978 seizure of the Nicaraguan congress that forced dictator Anastasio Somoza to release 60 FSLN prisoners. Téllez, later health minister and then leader of the Movement for Sandinista Renewal (MRS, now Unamos), was sentenced to seven years’ jail on the trumped-up catch-all charges of “conspiring to endanger national integrity” and “betrayal of the motherland”;
• Roger Reyes, lawyer for banned presidential candidate Félix Madariaga in the 2021 presidential election and member of the governing council of the opposition formation Blue and White National Unity (UNAB), jailed for “conspiring to endanger national integrity”;
• Economist and sociologist Irving Larios, president of the Nicaraguan Institute of Research and Social Management (INGES); and
• Sports commentator Miguel Mendoza, outspoken critic of the regime on social networks.
All four were arrested as part of a round-up in May-August last year of opponents of Ortega-Murillo, which included all declared or potential candidates with any chance of beating them in the November 2021 presidential elections.
Having eliminated those they call “coup-mongering delinquents” (for their support to the student-led uprising of April-June 2018) the presidential couple then enjoyed a walkover in the poll against the five “opponents” they had permitted to run against them.
The hunger strikers are demanding an end to solitary confinement (which in 13 cases has been permanent for 15 months), regular family visits and access to reading material.
The 219 Nicaraguan detainees who are recognised as political prisoners by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights have been subjected to malnutrition, prolonged solitary confinement with no access to sunlight and denial of proper medical attention and regular family visits.
As a result of their near-starvation diet, the prisoners lost up to 20% of their body mass.
Writing in the May North American Congress on Latin America bulletin, Nicaraguan writer and academic José Luís Rocha described their plight: “They survive without blankets to protect them from cold mornings, without sleeping mats to cushion them from the hard cement, without regular family visits to comfort them and with the lights on day and night.
“They are subjected to interrogations any time, day or night, and eat a meagre diet that has led some of them to lose up to 90 pounds [40 kilograms] while others end up as skin and bone.
“The women leaders of the UNAMOS party are confined in total isolation. The guards have been merciless because Ortega considers them to be his main competition in the electoral arena and because their feminism challenges sensitive points of the regime's conservative agenda.”
Such a regime, sometimes referred to as “white torture”, is a deliberate and sadistic violation of the United Nations’ “Nelson Mandela Rules” for the treatment of prisoners.
In the worst cases, the authorities have: prevented Mendoza, UNAMOS leader Suyen Barahona and other prisoners from seeing their young children for more than 15 months — a violation of Nicaragua’s own prison regulations — which has had a traumatic impact on around 150 sons and daughters.
The families of the political prisoners are anguished at the prospect that this mistreatment could be fatal, as it was in the case of former FSLN leader Hugo Torres, who died in a police hospital in February after being denied proper medical treatment in Managua’s feared “El Chipote” prison.
Announcing Téllez’s hunger strike, a family spokesperson told the media: “Bearing in the mind the disregard that the dictatorship showed for the life of Hugo Torres and for other political prisoners whose chronic illnesses were not properly attended to, we have reasons for fearing for the life of Dora María.
“We demand an immediate end to the situation of torture to which all the political prisoners, Dora María in particular, are being subjected.”
The present hunger strike follows on from that of human rights defender Támara Dávila, who adopted the extreme measure in August to be allowed to see her daughter. On August 21, the regime relented and mother and daughter met for the first time in 15 months.
The violation of rights extends beyond the jail walls to the prisoners’ families. According to the Mechanism for the Recognition of Political Prisoners: “We find a pattern of systematic incidents of harassment, persecution and surveillance of families of political prisoners by the police, parapolice and the power structures of the governing party such as Citizen Power Councils and the Sandinista Youth.”
Ortega and Murillo’s approach is to maintain this vindictive regime for as long as the political price paid is not too high and to make only the smallest, most grudging concessions to international and domestic pressure.
After Hugo Torres died from deliberate neglect, they allowed the oldest and most infirm prisoners to serve the rest of jail terms in home detention, but under conditions of total isolation.
This time, once their families released before-and-after portraits of the prisoners following over a year in El Chipote, the ruling couple decided they had to be exhibited alive and well in the public view.
Between August 30 and September 1, 27 of the prisoners were the subject of a media parade before being treated to an “informative session” without legal status in the Penal Chamber of the Managua Appeals Court.
Yet, although they had been “fattened up” by a crash increase in diet and cortisone injections in the weeks preceding this charade, their skin pallor and malnutrition was still obvious, as was the pain for some at suddenly being exposed to full daylight.
The Nicaraguan Human Rights Centre (CENIDH) described the media parade as “public shaming” and the “court session” as “yet one more abuse committed by the regime and one more crime committed by judges and magistrates”.
Three weeks later, after Téllez had begun her hunger strike, CENIDH president Vilma Nuñex said: “On that occasion we could see how she had deteriorated physically, a mark of the torture of her clearly pale, weak and thin body. How can a person of that age [66 years] and in that state continue to resist?”
No sign of relief
However, all the signs are that the calvary of Nicaragua’s political prisoners will continue as Ortega and Murillo continue to scapegoat the prisoners as “agents of the Empire” and crack down on the mildest dissent, and on any form of civic activity independent of their regime’s structures.
According to France 24, by September 20 the regime had closed down 1269 not-for-profit organisations this year, bringing the total to 1868 since the revolt of April 2018 (more than 31% of the total).
The list even includes Sandinista organisations such as the Association of Retired Fighters of the Sandinista People’s Army.
The regime has closed 50 media outlets, including the country’s longest-running daily, La Prensa, whose staff have fled the country.
At the same time, the elimination of real political opposition was finalised at the November 6 municipal elections, in which the FSLN alliance won all 153 of the country’s mayoralties, up from the 135 it won in 2017.
Ortega commented on the result: “The people voted thinking of the well-being of their family, and not thinking about political parties, in that they are convinced that the political party to which they belonged had done nothing and that there was no other way forward than to continue voting for the Sandinista Front.”
Ligia Gómez, the former head of research and FSLN leader at the Bank of Nicaragua, who left the party in protest at the repression of the 2018 protests and is now spokesperson for the election monitoring group Open Ballot Boxes, had a different take.
Citing the platform’s estimate of an 82.7% abstention rate, she said: “The election is part of the process of imposing a totalitarian state by Rosario Murillo and Daniel Ortega. The complete absence of democratic guarantees, the presence of political prisoners and the level of official violence has allowed the establishment of monopoly control in all the municipalities in the country.”
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]