Relatives fear for lives of jailed Nicaraguan opponents

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Families of four well-known opposition figures jailed in Nicaragua fear for their relatives’ lives because of bad conditions at the infamous El Chipote prison.

The four prisoners began a hunger strike in September to protest a lack of medical care, bad food and mistreatment after they were arrested and placed on trial for vague charges akin to treason.

Among the prisoners is former Sandinista rebel commander Dora María Téllez, 65.

“We fear that they may die inside that torture center,” the relatives of Téllez and three other inmates said in a statement Monday. “Every day that passes, their lives at greater risk.”

President Daniel Ortega alleged they and dozens of other political prisoners were behind 2018 street protests that he claims were a plot to overthrow him. Critics say he actually arrested them to eliminate any opposition to his re-election in 2021.

Relatives of journalist Miguel Mendoza, academic Irving Larios and lawyer Róger Reyes joined in issuing the statement.

They said prison authorities have threatened not to give the inmates bottles of drinking water that relatives supply themselves.

Further adding to their anguish was that fact the Ortega regime cancelled visits by family members almost two months ago, and they have not been able to see their loved ones.

Téllez led an assault on the National Palace in 1978 during the Somoza family dictatorship, holding congress members hostage in exchange for the release of rebel prisoners, was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Téllez had served as the health minister during the first Sandinista government in 1979, but later became disenchanted as Ortega consolidated power and founded the Sandinista Renovation Movement, now known as the Democratic Renovation Union.

Ortega has targeted nongovernmental groups in Nicaragua, cutting off their foreign funding, seizing their offices and canceling their charters. He alleges they worked with foreign interests that wanted to see him removed from office.

Nicaraguan judges have 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 El Chipote and the age of some of the opposition leaders, relatives fear 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.

Thousands have fled into exile since Nicaraguan security forces violently put down antigovernment protests in 2018.

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