International anger grows as Nicaragua's Ortega rounds up rivals

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, Ortega’s 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 parliament in December to defend Nicaragua’s “sovereignty.” The law has been widely criticized as a means of freezing out challengers and silencing opponents.

At a session of the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday, 59 nations from the Americas, Europe and Asia 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.

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.

Nicaragua has defended its actions by saying those arrested were “usurpers” funded by the United States to topple Ortega, leader of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).

And on Tuesday Managua insisted the arrests were in response to “coup” plots against the government.

– ‘Ambiguous’ offences –

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet urged the council 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 Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo — Nicaragua’s deputy president — broke out in 2018, with protesters denouncing a descent into dictatorship, nepotism and corruption.

A violent clampdown claimed 328 lives, according to rights bodies, while hundreds were imprisoned and some 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.

– ‘State of siege’ –

A firebrand Marxist in his younger days, Ortega and his Sandinistas toppled a corrupt autocratic regime to popular applause and seized control of the country in 1979.

He ruled until 1990, returned to power in 2007 and has won two successive reelections.

Since the beginning of June, Ortega’s forces have been rounding up opponents, starting with Cristiana Chamorro, the daughter of former president Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.

The older Chamorro had beaten Ortega in presidential elections in 1990 and the younger was seen as a favorite to win this time round.

The most recent presidential hopeful to be detained was Miguel Mora, arrested on Sunday night in his home for “inciting foreign interference in internal affairs and requesting military intervention,” according to authorities.

Last month, Nicaragua’s legislature appointed a majority of governing party-aligned magistrates to the election body that will oversee the vote. It has since disqualified two parties from participating.

Nicaraguan political analyst Oscar Rene Vargas, himself in exile in Costa Rica, told AFP Ortega was clearly out to eliminate any rival that could cost him the top job, leaving only those who pose little threat to create a veneer of electoral legitimacy.

The November election, Vargas said, will take place “in a de facto state of siege.”

Human Rights Watch, in a report released Tuesday, urged the UN secretary-general to bring the case of Nicaragua before the Security Council as “a growing crisis involving grave human rights abuses which could undermine stability in the region.”

On June 9, the United States announced fresh sanctions against allies of Ortega, who diplomats referred to as a “dictator,” while the UN and Organization of American States have also called for the release of the detainees.

But the matter is a headache for Washington. With Nicaragua one of the poorest countries in the Americas, President Joe Biden is keen to avoid worsening domestic conditions and swelling the north-bound wave of undocumented migrants.

Mexico and Argentina on Monday recalled their ambassadors to Nicaragua for consultations in response to Ortega’s crackdown.

Panama’s foreign minister Erika Mouynes drew a parallel to Venezuela, where Nicolas Maduro clung to power despite international condemnation and sanctions, saying the world could not use “the same recipe” and expect different results.

“It is putting the international community to the test,” she said.

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