MEXICO CITY (AP) — Some 222 inmates considered by many to be political prisoners of the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega flew to Washington on Thursday, a senior Biden administration official confirmed.
The government of Nicaragua decided “unilaterally” to release 222 individuals whom they had imprisoned, said the official, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. The official noted that some of those released had spent years in prison, under terrible conditions for apparently exercising fundamental rights.
Ortega has maintained that his imprisoned opponents and others were behind 2018 street protests that he claims were a plot to overthrow him. Tens of thousands have fled into exile since Nicaraguan security forces violently put down those antigovernment protests in.
The Nicaraguan opposition’s latest count on “political prisoners” held had been 245. It was not immediately clear who was not released.
The U.S. official said the United States facilitated the transportation of the freed individuals to the United States, where they will be paroled for humanitarian reasons into the country for a period of two years. The plane landed at Washington’s Dulles International Airport shortly before midday.
The official said the U.S. government considered the mass release a positive step by Nicaragua. The official said all of those who left Nicaragua did so voluntarily and are to receive medical and legal assistance upon arrival in the U.S.
A Nicaraguan judge read a statement saying that the 222 prisoners had been “deported.”
Octavio Rothschuh, a magistrate on the Managua Appeals court, said the deportation was carried out under an order issued Wednesday that declared the prisoners “traitors to the country.” He said they were deported for actions that undermined Nicaragua’s independence and sovereignty.
Later Thursday, Nicaragua’s Congress unanimously approved a constitutional change allowing “traitors” to be stripped of their nationality. It will require a second vote in the next legislative session later this year.
Arturo McFields, Nicaragua’s former ambassador to the Organization of American States, celebrated the release, which he said the U.S. State Department had confirmed to him.
“It is a massive freeing” of prisoners seldom seen, McFields said. He credited the prisoners’ families for never letting up the pressure.
Family members of some of those released also confirmed that the prisoners were flying to Washington.
Berta Valle, the wife of opposition leader Felix Maradiaga, said the State Department told her that her husband was on the plane.
According to U.S. officials, also among those aboard the flight were Cristiana Chamorro, who had been a leading presidential contender before her arrest in 2021. Daughter of former President Violeta Chamorro, she was sentenced last March to eight years in prison. She was convicted of money laundering through her mother’s nongovernmental organization as Ortega pursued NGOs that received foreign funding. She was being held under house arrest.
Other one-time presidential hopefuls Arturo Cruz and Juan Sebastian Chamorro were also on the flight, U.S. officials said.
Ortega upped his pursuit of political opponents in early 2021, looking to clear the field ahead of presidential elections in November of that year. Security forces arrested seven potential presidential contenders and Ortega romped to a fourth consecutive term in elections that the U.S. and other countries termed a farce.
Nicaraguan judges sentenced several opposition leaders, including former high-level officials of the governing Sandinista movement and former presidential contenders, to prison terms for “conspiracy to undermine national integrity.”
Given the notoriously bad conditions at the infamous El Chipote prison and others, as well as the age of some of the opposition leaders, relatives had feared the terms may effectively be death sentences.
Hugo Torres, a former Sandinista guerrilla leader who once led a raid that helped free then rebel Ortega from prison, died while awaiting trial. He was 73.
Nicaraguan judges also sentenced five Catholic priests to prison this week for conspiracy and spreading false information. It was not immediately known if any of them were among those released.
Madhani reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.