MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — Hundreds of police prevented a march Wednesday to commemorate a year since Nicaraguan protesters took to the streets to oppose the government of President Daniel Ortega.
Hours before the scheduled start, police vehicles lined a main thoroughfare in the capital where the march was to take place and more filled side streets. Officers watched from overpasses and riot police with helmets and shields surrounded a monument where the march was planned to end.
Still more police filled a popular mall and other businesses in the area, keeping many citizens from venturing out.
The opposition had sought permission to hold the march, but police denied their request for a permit.
As small groups of protesters gathered near the march route, they were quickly surrounded by police who did not allow the groups to merge. The protesters, many holding Nicaragua's blue and white flag, chanted "Freedom! Freedom!" in place.
Student leaders and negotiators from the opposition Civic Alliance were surrounded by police. An opposition coalition said at least 22 people, including a journalist from a Nicaraguan outlet were detained.
"People are really scared to come out into the street because of this police presence. Ortega put his police in the street because he's afraid the people will rise up," said Harley Morales, a student leader.
Alejandra Centeno, another student leader, said: "Ortega is not complying with the signed agreements. We defend our right to free demonstration."
The journalist was later released, but said police had beaten him and stolen his cellphone.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said in a statement that a year after protests began, the government continues to impose a police state. "State repression and a strategy to silence dissident voices persist," it said.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and foreign governments have urged Ortega to allow people to peacefully demonstrate. Public protests have been effectively banned since last year.
Protests against cuts to social security benefits began April 18, 2018, and were violently repressed by police and Ortega supporters. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights says at least 325 people have been killed.
Meanwhile, in Florida on Wednesday, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton announced that the Trump administration was turning up the pressure on Ortega's government.
Bolton announced sanctions on financial services provider Bancorp, which he claimed is a "slush fund" for Ortega. The bank had already been sanctioned by the U.S. for its links to Venezuela's state-owned oil company.
He also said the U.S. was imposing sanctions on Laureano Ortega, one of the eight children of Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo. Bolton accused him of being involved in "vast corruption under the guise of leading Nicaragua's investment agency."
Laureano Ortega is an adviser to the Nicaragua's state investment agency. A tenor and opera lover, the younger Ortega is rumored to be being groomed by his parents to one day assume power.
Last week, members of a delegation from the European Parliament who visited Nicaragua in January sent a letter to the vice president of the European Commission arguing that it was time for Europe to sanction Nicaragua, because negotiations with Ortega were not advancing.
Mario Arana, a negotiator for the Civic Alliance opposition group and president of the American Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce, said the U.S. sanctions were "inevitable, given that the negotiation process has been slow and the government has not fulfilled practically any of the agreements it signed at the table."