MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Feb 22 2023 (IPS) – On 9 February, Nicaragua’s dictator, Daniel Ortega, unexpectedly ordered the release of 222 political prisoners, including several former presidential candidates, opposition party leaders, journalists, priests, diplomats, businesspeople and former government supporters branded as enemies for expressing mild public criticism.

Also released were several members and leaders of civil society organisations (CSOs) and social movements, including student activists and environmental, peasant and Indigenous rights defenders. Some had been arrested on trumped-up charges for taking part in mass protests in 2018 and stuck in prison for more than four years.

But the Ortega regime didn’t simply let them go – it put them on a charter flight to the USA and before their plane had even landed permanently stripped them of their Nicaraguan nationality and their civil and political rights. The government made clear it wasn’t recognising their innocence; it was only commuting their sentences.

The rise of a police state

Ever since being re-elected in a blatantly fraudulent election in November 2021, Ortega has sought to make up for his lack of democratic legitimacy by establishing a police state. The regime effectively outlawed all civil society and independent media, closing more than 3,000 CSOs and 55 media outlets. It subverted the judicial system to falsely accuse, convict and imprison hundreds of critics and intimidate everyone else into compliance.

Political prisoners have been treated with purposeful cruelty, as though they’re enemy hostages – kept in isolation, either in the dark or under permanent bright lighting, given insufficient food and refused medical care, subjected to constant interrogations, denied legal counsel and allowed only irregular visits by family members, if at all. Psychological torture has been a constant, and many have been also subjected to physical torture.

The release of some prisoners hasn’t signalled any improvement in conditions or move towards democracy, as made clear by the treatment experienced by one political prisoner, Catholic bishop Rolando Álvarez, who refused to board the plane to the USA.

In retaliation for his refusal to leave the country, his trial date was brought forward and held immediately, in the absence of any procedural safeguards. It predictably resulted in a 26-year sentence. Álvarez was immediately sent to prison, where he remains alongside dozens of others.

Stripped of citizenship

The constitutional amendment stripping the 222 released political prisoners of their citizenship states that ‘traitors to the homeland shall lose the status of Nicaraguan nationals’ – even though the constitution establishes that no national can be deprived of their nationality.

It was an illegal act on top of another illegal act. No one can be deported from their own country: what the regime called a deportation was a banishment, something against both domestic law and international human rights standards.

On 15 February, the regime doubled down: it stripped 94 more people of their nationality. Those newly declared stateless included prominent political dissidents, civil society activists, journalists and the writers Gioconda Belli and Sergio Ramírez, both of whom had held government positions in the 1980s. Most of the 94 were already living in exile. They were declared ‘fugitives from justice’.

Mixed reactions

By rendering 326 people stateless, the Nicaraguan dictatorship fuelled instant international solidarity. On 10 February, the Spanish government offered the 222 just-released prisoners Spanish citizenship – an offer many are bound to accept. On 17 February, more than 500 writers around the world rallied around Belli and Ramírez and denounced the closure of civic space in Nicaragua.

In Argentina, the Roundtable on Human Rights, Democracy and Society sent an open letter to President Alberto Fernández to request he offer Argentinian nationality to all Nicaraguans stripped of theirs.

But Argentina, alongside most of Latin America, has looked the other way. Its silence suggests that democratic consensus across the region is more fragile and superficial than might be hoped, with willingness to condemn rights violations depending on the ideological leanings of those who carry them out.

Currently all the region’s big democracies – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico – have governments that define themselves as left-wing. But only one of their presidents, Chile’s Gabriel Boric, has consistently criticised Nicaragua’s authoritarian turn. In response to the latest developments he tweeted a personal message of solidarity with those affected, calling Ortega a dictator. The rest have either issued mild official statements or simply remained silent.

Now what?

The Nicaraguan government insisted that releasing the prisoners was its own decision. The fact it was accompanied by further violations of released prisoners’ rights was meant as a demonstration of power.

But the move looks like it was made in the expectation of receiving something in return. The Nicaraguan government has long demanded that US sanctions be lifted; at a time when one of its closest ideological allies, Russia, is unable to provide any significant support, Nicaragua needs the USA more than ever. But the US government has always said the release of political prisoners must be the first step towards negotiations.

Given this, the unilateral surrender of people it considers dangerous conspirators to the state it proclaims is its worst enemy doesn’t seem much like a show of force. And if it isn’t, then it’s a valuable advocacy opportunity. The international community must push for the restoration of civic space and the return of free, fair and competitive elections. The first step should be to support the hundreds who’ve been expelled from their own country, as the future builders of democracy in Nicaragua.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.