Four months ahead of a crucial election, the government of long-time President Daniel Ortega has detained more than two dozen people since late May, including the six presidential candidates. Opposition leaders, student leaders, businessmen and activists have also been targeted.
Those latest detained include presidential candidate Medardo Mairena Sequeira and farming and labor leaders Freddy Navas Lopez, Pablo Morales and Pedro Joaquin Mena Amador. They are accused of being the ringleaders in the murder of four policemen and the kidnapping of 12 police officers in 2018, according to a statement from the Nicaraguan National police published early Tuesday.
“They committed homicides, robbery with intimidation and kidnappings, extortion, rape, and caused destruction and widespread damage during the failed coup attempt of 2018,” the police statement says, apparently referring to mass anti-government protests which roiled the country that year.
But the farmer’s movement said on Twitter that the government had “kidnapped” its leaders, and rejected the charges as “ridiculous.”
“We denounce the ridiculous accusations by the Ortega police against our leaders accusing them of committing horrendous crimes even applauding the imposition of sanctions,” it said in a statement, demanding their immediate release and calling on the community to denounce the detentions.
Ahead of his detention, Navas himself had uploaded a video indicating he believed his detention would be politically motivated. “If you are watching this video it is because they took me, because I am already in prison, because I am detained. One way or another I am prepared,” he said.
Mairena is the sixth presidential candidate to be detained in recent months. Miguel Mora Barberena was rounded up June 20; Cristiana Chamorro has been under house arrest since June 2; former diplomat Arturo Cruz was arrested on June 5; and political scientist Félix Maradiaga and economist Juan Sebastián Chamorro were both arrested on June 8.
Student leaders also detained
Also detained late Monday were student leaders from the anti-government Nicaraguan University Association (AUN), Lesther Lenin Aleman Alfaro and Max Isaac Jerez.
According to the police statement, both students were accused of causing destruction at two Nicaraguan universities after they allegedly “committed crimes of robbery with assault, kidnappings, caused serious injuries, rape, extortion, destruction and widespread damage, during the failed coup attempt of 2018.”
Speaking to reporters after her son’s arrest, Lesther Aleman’s mother Lesbia Alfaro Silva said her son was innocent, and accused police of searching her home without producing a warrant.
“I asked them and they told me it was a raid but I told them with what order they come to search my house? They took some things, I did not want to sign any documents,” she said. “My son is very innocent and we as mothers, we have to continue and stay firm.”
Moments before his arrest, Max Jerez – the President of AUN – tweeted the police were attempting to enter his home and posted a pre-recorded video calling for fellow citizens to “fight together” for freedom.
“If you are watching this video, it is because I am detained by the dictatorship or without means to communicate,” he said, adding: “This is the moment to act, the dictatorship wants to put an end to hope. We must continue this fight together for the freedom of the Nicaraguan people, let us not fall into despair, into immobilization.”
Those arrested Monday are known critics of Ortega’s regime. Speaking to CNN a few days before his arrest, Aleman said the upcoming elections would trigger peaceful and civil protests in Nicaragua. “We have the power, the empowerment, the strength to decide our future. We are the majority,” he said. “Ortega does not feel confident that he will win the next election and he has to fight against the leaderships and visible faces of the opposition.”
Ortega’s government cracked down hard on opposition figures during the anti-government protests of 2018. At least 322 people were killed then, with thousands injured and hundreds detained. At the time, UN human rights experts accused the government of human rights violations against protesters. Ortega said the UN report was “nothing more than an instrument of the policy of death, of the policy of terror, of the policy of lying, of the policy of infamy.”
Many of the dozens detained since May have been charged with vague, so-called “national security” violations, which human rights groups say is a clear sign that Ortega is doing his best to eliminate dissent and crush any competition ahead of upcoming general elections on November 7, when he hopes to secure his fourth consecutive term as president.
According to the National Police, Monday’s detainees are being investigated for alleged acts against the country’s national sovereignty and inciting foreign interference in internal affairs, under the same 1055 law used in recent arrests – the “Law for the Defense of the Rights of the People to Independence, sovereignty and self-determination for peace.”
The weekslong crackdown has generated international condemnation. Mexico and Argentina last month recalled their ambassadors to Nicaragua for consultations, citing “worrying legal actions by the Nicaraguan government.” The US government has announced sanctions on four senior members of Ortega’s government, including his daughter, saying they were “complicit in the regime’s repression.”
Ahead of his detention, Lesther Aleman was nevertheless hopeful. “We’re realistic that Nicaragua is in the middle of ruins as it attempts to rebuild it democratic system,” he said to CNN. “We’re participating to win and we believe that winning is to win the presidency, and to win in the National Assembly to make changes for the country.”
Kiarinna Parisi contributed to this report.