Nicaragua tries, sentences more opposition leaders

MEXICO CITY (AP) — One-time Nicaragua presidential aspirant Cristiana Chamorro and one of her brothers were among five people formally placed on trial Thursday.

Chamorro, 68, has been under house arrest since June 2. She was taken under heavy guard to the notorious El Chipote prison in the capital, according to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.

Chamorro, her brother Pedro Joaquín Chamorro and three former employees of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation will be tried for money laundering and other alleged crimes. The foundation provided money for training journalists and defending freedom of expression.

She was one of the first in a wave of detentions against opposition leaders, including seven potential presidential candidates, to clear the way from President Daniel Ortega's re-election to a fourth consecutive term in office Nov. 7.

Chamorro has maintained her innocence. She is the daughter of former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who governed from 1990 to 1997.

Ortega’s government has moved against a number of nongovernmental organizations it views as opposition. The president has claimed that organizations receiving funding from abroad were part of a broader conspiracy to remove him from office in 2018.

Nicaraguan judges also sentenced several opposition leaders, including former high-level Sandinistas and former presidential contenders, to prison terms for “conspiracy to undermine national integrity.”

Former presidential contender Félix Maradiaga and Juan Sebastián Chamorro both were sentenced to 13 years in prison. The Central American country’s former ambassador to the United States, Arturo Cruz Sequeira, was sentenced to 9 years.

Former Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister José Pallais, 68, was also sentenced to 13 years, as was business leader José Adán Aguerri. Opposition activists Violeta Granera and opposition leader Tamara Dávila got sentences of 8 years.

Given the notoriously bad conditions at El Chipote prison 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.

The string of recent trials of opposition figures has been carried out in El Chipote prison. The defendants have only been permitted to have their lawyers present.

The trials “have been full of violations of the law and violations of rights and due process, and therefore they are null and void trials, that have issued null sentences,” the Civic Alliance said in a statement.

Vilma Núñez, the president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, called the trials “a farse.”

“As far as the charges against them, there are nonexistent crimes. In that sense, the government can never prove these absurd accusations,” Núñez said.

Thousands have fled into exile since Nicaraguan security forces violently put down antigovernment protests in 2018. Ortega says the protests were actually an attempted coup with foreign backing, and many of those on trial have been accused of working with foreign powers for his overthrow or encouraging foreign nations to apply sanctions on members of his family and government.