nicaragua frees hundreds of political prisoners to the u s

The authoritarian government of Daniel Ortega handed over 222 prisoners as a way to signal a desire to restart relations with the United States, according to officials.

Nicaragua released 222 political prisoners early Thursday, including an American citizen, in a deal negotiated with Washington that marks one of the biggest prisoner releases ever involving the United States, according to senior Biden administration officials.

The Nicaraguan government, which sought nothing in return, agreed to release the prisoners to the United States as a way to signal a desire to restart relations with the country, the officials said.

The Biden administration has imposed sanctions on the government and family of President Daniel Ortega in recent years, as the country has slid into autocratic rule and targeted opponents in civil society, the church and the news media.

Despite the positive action from the Nicaraguan government, officials in Washington say they remain wary since it is unclear whether the Ortega family is willing to loosen its grip on power, permit political dissent and hold free and fair elections.

Those released in Nicaragua included political opposition members, business figures, student activists and journalists. Once in the United States, they will be given humanitarian parole for a period of two years, a process that allows foreigners who do not have a visa or may not be eligible for one to enter the country and apply for asylum. Two other political prisoners declined offers of refuge in the United States.

The prisoner release “marks a constructive step toward addressing human rights abuses in the country and opens the door to further dialogue,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in a statement.

Clutching what few belongings they had in plastic bags, many looking frail, the freed detainees boarded the flight from Managua to Washington, before it took off at about 7:45 a.m. E.S.T., officials said. It landed about four hours later.

The flight was chartered by the U.S. government and as it circled the sky above Washington some of the freed prisoners began to sing, tears in their eyes, according to officials.

The American government planned to provide medical and legal assistance to the former prisoners, according to U.S. officials, before allowing them to reunite with their families.

Friends and relatives of the prisoners waited at an arrivals section of Dulles International Airport. Some waved Nicaraguan flags while singing the national anthem. One person held up a painting of Jesus Christ. A person in the crowd read the names of those who had been freed as others chanted, “libertad,” meaning freedom.

Pete Marovich for The New York Times

In a Thursday evening speech, Mr. Ortega confirmed the prisoners’ release — calling them agents of Washington — and said his government did not ask for anything in return.

“We do not want any trace of those who are mercenaries to remain here in our country,” he said.

Biden administration officials said that while most of the sanctions against the Ortega family and the Nicaraguan government will continue, penalties specifically tied to the jailing of political prisoners may be eased.

Many of those released had been arrested over the last few years for their political dissent against the Ortega family, with many sentenced to prison or house arrest in what critics and family members called sham trials.

Some of them experienced horrific treatment inside Nicaraguan detention centers, many family members said, and were denied treatment for longstanding medical conditions or given little to eat. At least one of them died in captivity.

One of those traveling to the United States was Cristiana Chamorro Barrios, a journalist who was a leading contender in Nicaragua’s presidential elections held in 2021.

Just months before the elections, Ms. Chamorro was disqualified as a candidate. Government forces then raided her home and detained her minutes before she was scheduled to give a news conference to speak about her disqualification and criticize the government’s interference in the polls.

For Carlos Fernando Chamorro Barrios, the news could not have been more of a surprise. Beside his sister, Cristiana, his brother, Pedro Joaquín, was also freed on Thursday. Both had been jailed for their opposition to the Ortega family and Mr. Chamorro had expected to possibly never see them again.

“Today a long day of torture and cruelty against the best sons of Nicaragua has ended,” said Mr. Chamorro, who fled shortly after his brother and sister were imprisoned in 2021. This “is the first step toward freedom for all of Nicaragua,’’ he added. “All prisoners of conscience are innocent. They were convicted in spurious trials for fabricated crimes and have now been banished.”

Pete Marovich for The New York Times

The country’s National Assembly on Thursday passed a measure to change the constitution in order to strip the freed prisoners of their nationality, according to local media reports.

While officials in Washington were upbeat about Thursday’s developments, they said they would continue to apply pressure to the Ortega administration. The Biden administration does not believe that “the nature of the government” has changed, one official said.

In a sign that the Ortega family may not be willing to engage in a wider political opening, two drivers from La Prensa, Nicaragua’s leading newspaper, were sentenced Wednesday to 10 years in prison for undermining “national integrity.”

The prisoner release will likely revive a long standing debate about whether sanctions work in Washington’s favor. In countries less reliant on the United States and farther away, like North Korea or Iraq under Saddam Hussein, sanctions have had little impact.

But in countries more directly in Washington’s orbit, like Nicaragua, Thursday’s events may bolster the argument that sanctions are effective. Although the Ortega family has shored up its ties to China, Russia and Cuba in recent years, the United States is still by far Nicaragua’s top trading partner.

“There are a limited number of places in the world where the U.S. has real leverage and it seems like Nicaragua may be one of them,” said Dan Restrepo, a former national security adviser for Latin America under President Barack Obama.

“But Nicaragua remains a terrible place for Nicaraguans, and a lot more has to change. We will have to wait and see if it will,” he added.

Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Sanctions have hit the Ortega family and its inner circle hard in recent years, targeting the economy and top generals and several of the president’s children. The sanctions have also stretched the government’s ability to pay off pro-Ortega paramilitaries or expand the police force to manage dissent.

Last year Laureano Ortega, likely the heir to his father, approached Washington seeking sanctions relief in exchange for the release of political prisoners.

Mr. Ortega, the president of Nicaragua, is a former Marxist guerrilla leader who rose to power after helping overthrow another notorious Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza, in 1979.

He then spent years in political opposition until winning elections in 2006 and began to steadily consolidate his family’s control. In 2017, Mr. Ortega appointed his wife as vice president, while his children began taking larger roles in business and politics.

Since then, the government has shut down independent media outlets and closed more than 3,000 nongovernmental organizations, while also banning church processions for fear that they could break out into protests.

While relatives of the political prisoners who were brought to the United States were overjoyed by their release, they said more needs to be done.

On Thursday, Ariana Gutierrez Pinto, 28, was waiting at Dulles airport for her mother, Evelyn, a human-rights activist who had been imprisoned for more than a year.

“I’m extremely excited. I cannot wait to hug her,” Ms. Pinto said. “But at the same time, it’s not fair for them to just have thrown them out of their own country.”

Chris Cameron and Yubelka Mendoza contributed reporting.

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